Haruf returns to Holt with compassionate 'Benediction'

Published: Friday, March 15 2013 4:56 p.m. MDT

"BENEDICTION," by Kent Haruf, Alfred A. Knopf Books, $25.95, 272 pages (f)

Don't expect to find Kent Haruf's novels next to the day's best-selling pop fiction. The folks in his stories don't possess a single superpower. Their days are passed with little intrigue or suspense. They neither embody evil nor represent absolute goodness. They are, instead, generally dependable people who want to do the right thing — but sometimes don't.

Haruf's characters are your neighbors, your parents, your children and your friends. They are the middle-aged woman you know from work and the quiet man you see most Sundays at church. They are the kids who pedal their bikes past your front yard.

Such remarkably regular characters can still fascinate when conjured and crafted by a writer of Haruf's insight and capacity. There is more to his characters than seen at first glance. We recognize them and they matter.

Many readers discovered Haruf with the 1999 publication of his bestselling novel, "Plainsong" and his subsequent book "Eventide." Both were set in the fictional town of Holt, Colo., and chronicled the struggles of its residents and their efforts to realize purpose in their lives.

Haruf's new book, "Benediction," returns to Holt but introduces a new central character, Dad Lewis. In the book's opening page, the old man learns he has terminal cancer. Soon he will die. His diagnosis is, at once, awful and likely familiar to readers.

The author then anchors his story to Dad's response to his prognosis and his seemingly futile deathbed wish to mend a relationship with his estranged son, Frank, that was mangled decades earlier.

A variety of rich characters are intertwined with Dad Lewis and his wife, Mary. Next door lives a shy little girl named Alice who is coming to terms with the passing of her own mother. A widow and her single, middle-aged daughter who become the beneficiaries of the child’s innocence and youthful acceptance will befriend her.

Meanwhile, the residents of Holt are forced to decide what to make of their newly arrived preacher and his troubled wife and teenage son.

Haruf approaches each character and their respective relationships with compassion and empathy. But he's rarely sentimental. "Benediction" is no fairy tale. People die, love is often unrequited and some relationships will never be rescued.

The author noted in a Deseret News interview that he writes "out of intuition" — utilizing his own life experiences and relationships to fuel his stories. He doesn't develop his novels, he added, "with what English teachers used to call a theme."

Still, the experiences of Dad Lewis and his family and friends are elemental, and universal themes do emerge in "Benediction."

The patriarchal tension, for example, that afflicts father Dad and son Frank has existed since the first pages of the Bible. It also proves generational for the Lewis clan. In his final moments, Dad Lewis is desperate to experience both a reconciliation with his adult son and the approving nod from his own, long-dead father.

Haruf's female characters are developed with a knowing admiration and emerge as the steadying force in the community. While the men of "Benediction" are lonesome figures who typically face trouble alone, their female counterparts find strength and support through sisterhood. They look out for each other and friendship is their reward.

"Benediction" is both sad and surprisingly uplifting in its honest and skillful examination of death, families and friendship.

Meanwhile, Kent Haruf's apocryphal town of Holt remains a place where goodness and malice cohabit like bickering relatives living under the same roof. It's an imperfect, but ultimately redeemable community that can teach a lesson or two to all who visit.

"Benediction" is a challenging novel that examines mature themes. The book includes sexual content and scattered profanity throughout.

Event canceled

Kent Haruf was scheduled to be at a reception, discussion and book signing on Wednesday, March 20, at The King's English. However, the event is being postponed until this summer as Haruf is "under the weather," according to a publicist for the publisher.

Email: jswensen@deseretnews.com

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