Monday, December 9, 2013

Benediction: Book Review

Published Feb 2013 by Knopf.
Kent Haruf presents a novel spoken sotto voce and focused on the last days of a 77-year-old hardware store owner, Dad Lewis and his family living in east of Denver in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Lewis learns in the opening chapter that he has cancer that will claim him in a matter of weeks.  During this time, Lewis reviews his life--his business relationships, his parenting choices, and his marriage.

While the title implies a sustained focus on achieving closure for a dying man, other characters from the same small town of Haruf's storyworld are taking stock of their lives as well.

The preacher and his family, newly arrived from Denver, must ask themselves if their lives have meaning, and if they should make a change. A mature woman long widowed and her never-married daughter make decisions on what "love your neighbor" really means One considers the meaning of romantic love in relationships now lost. An 8-year-old girl seeks to claim a sense of family in the wake of her mother's death from breast cancer.

Most of the novel brings the reader's attention to the dulled beauty and muffled joy of every day activities. This isn't a fast-paced novel filled with back-to-back conflicts. It's a Sunday drive through the countryside of people's ordinary lives.


The author's gaze is dramatized in the book itself.  A recurring character from another family in town, Reverent Lyle, functions a bit like Haruf himself. Lyle is walking through the town at night observing the lives of his neighbors when a police offer stops him and asks why he's looking at other peoples' houses:
People in their houses at night. These ordinary lives. Passing without their knowing it. I'd hope to recapture something....The precious ordinary. (p. 162)
Benediction reads a bit like a 21st Century update on Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  But Haruf's view of Main Street, USA is more complex in its prose styling, more littered with scandalous behavior, less overtly moralizing, and less settled at its conclusion.

While the title implies a sustained focus on the achieving closure for the man dying from cancer, other characters from the same small town of Haruf's storyworld are taking stock of their lives as well.  We see them pouring over the balance sheets of their lives, trying to determine if their riches exceed their debts.

Whatever the value of their lives may be--and its ambiguous--I felt enriched by taking this literary journey with Haruf walking me through quiet scenes where the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the telling.

Related:

Books on Aging


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