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The Middle Distance 3.22.13:

Photo by Sean Cayton

Over the last 13 years, there have been three brief moments when the world grew so quiet I could nearly hear my own heartbeat. The first was in 2000 when I read Colorado author Kent Haruf’s deceptively simple and deeply humane novel Plainsong. The second was in 2004, when Haruf’s Eventide was released, set in the same fictional town on the eastern plains and filled with the same kind of plain-spoken townspeople. The third was earlier this week when I ripped open the brown cardboard Amazon carton waiting on my front porch and dipped into Haruf’s latest novel, Benediction, a meditation on the end of a long life lived in the same small town with all its complicated regrets and simple pleasures. I am rarely happy to be kept up all night, but a new book by Kent Haruf is far more satisfying than sleep.

Haruf grew up the son of a Methodist minister in a place much like his fictional Holt, Colorado, and published two other books before these three—The Tie That Binds and Where We Once Belonged—also set in Holt, but written in a more mainstream, plot-driven style.

With Plainsong, Haruf honed a voice that perfectly reflects the austere beauty of the landscape and people he loves, and Holt became this Colorado son’s equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. His work has been widely and justly praised by critics and has garnered a Whiting Foundation Award, a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation, and a nomination for the National Book Award for Plainsong.

I interviewed Haruf right after Plainsong came out, when he was living in Carbondale, Illinois where he taught, but was planning a move with his wife Cathy back to Colorado. They have been living in Salida since then.

Plainsong introduced readers to a pair of brothers as interesting as any in American literature, the McPherons, two old ranchers living on the edge of Holt who take in an orphaned pregnant teenager, Victoria Roubideaux, and become her unlikely family. Haruf told me that the McPherons were inspired by “two old bachelor farmers who came in every Sunday to [his] dad’s church in their black suits and white shirts. They were very shy, and never said anything to anybody.” Haruf and his younger brother admired the older brothers’ solitary lives, and the author incubated them as characters for nearly 50 years.
The McPherons appear again in Eventide, after Victoria moves up to Fort Collins with her baby girl to attend college, and the brothers endure a difficult and unrelenting winter on the plains while new characters, including a mentally disabled couple with two vulnerable and cruelly teased young children, inhabit the dusty streets of Holt.

I was hoping to see the McPherons in Benediction, but Kent Haruf is way too fine an author to give a reader the same story twice. The central character here is Dad Lewis, owner of the town’s hardware store, dying of terminal cancer and resigned to that fact. Attending to his needs as he diminishes over a long summer are his wife, Mary, and his daughter, Lorraine, summoned home from Denver. Peripheral characters include Alice, the orphaned granddaughter of Berta May, the Lewises next-door neighbor, a cautious girl who both fears and adores Dad; and Reverend Lyle, the Community Church pastor recently relocated to Holt from Denver after a shake-up caused by something he has uttered from the pulpit. Dad and Rev. Lyle, though unaligned, each bear the sorrow of fathers estranged from their sons—Dad’s long vanished and Lyle’s rebelliously stirring up trouble in Holt.

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praised Eventide, noting that its prose “possesse[d] the haunting appeal of music, the folksy rhythms of an American ballad and the lovely, measured grace of an old hymn.” It is no accident that the titles of these three American classics evoke sacred sounds: the vesper of eventide, the unaccompanied chant of plainsong, and the departing prayer of benediction: The Lord bless you and keep you … and give you peace.

Devoid of irony and as plain and foreboding as Highway 24 from Colorado Springs to Calhan and beyond, Benediction succeeds at depicting the march of time and death as something inevitable and elemental. Near the end of the book, on an August night, Mary and Lorraine wash Dad’s cooling body, dress him in clean pajamas, light a candle and sit with him. The neighbors bring food and offer help and the funeral is planned.
And before you know it, the leaves are dropping off the trees and it’s a new season altogether.

Click HERE to purchase Benediction by Kent Haruf (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

Music in this piece is:

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 3/22/13: The Night Ahead

  1. rose enyeart says:

    I just got 3 new books. I guess I won’t be sleeping much!!! I can hardly wait!!

  2. John Hazlehurst says:

    Such a lovely review! Have yet to read any of the three, so I think I have plans ready-made for this weekend.

  3. Judith gigliott says:

    I have journeyed with Benediction on this trip to Phoenix , and have delayed finishing it so I can extend time with these folk. Thank you Kent for the gift of these folk . Judy Gigliotti

    U

  4. Jac says:

    They say a writer should write about what they know, their experiences. This author (and also you!) are doing just that. As I read your words, my mind immediately went to one of my favorites, Horton Foote, who grew up in the small courthouse town of Wharton, Texas. In his plays, he tells the stories of the people he grew up with in that town, re-named family and friends. The tales are absorbing and valid, as are the ones you describe by Haruf. Fascinating stuff!

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