Reviews

Kent Haruf – Scribe of dust and light

2015 was my year of Kent Haruf. At Editor Angela Reitsma Bick’s recommendation (CC, July 14, 2014), I picked up Benediction in January, fell in love, then immediately read his five other novels. Now I’ve just finished his final work, Our Souls at Night, released this past May. Haruf died in late 2014 at age 71. What enthralls me about this author I’d never heard of before? Well, let me tell you.

Haruf sets his novels in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, a rural community populated with wholly ordinary people. He respects his characters, revealing them by rigorous but compassionate honesty. He details the habits that structure their small town living and then explores what happens when their routines are disrupted by life’s caprices.

The Tie that Binds, Haruf’s debut novel, is the story of Edith Goodnough, a robust woman from pioneer stock who is trapped by family ties and fixes upon a drastic solution. Where You Once Belonged follows the fortune of favoured high school hero, Jack Burdette, chronicling his squandered opportunities and downward slide into criminality. In Plainsong, a National Book Prize winner, two old bachelor brothers, ranchers accustomed to hard work and reticence, suddenly find themselves offering shelter to a pregnant teenager, leading one to comment, “I’m beginning to have a little more appreciation for these people with kids nowadays. It only appears to be easier from the outside.” At the same time a teacher and his two sons are thrown off kilter when their depressed wife and mother deserts them. In Eventide, some Plainsong characters reappear, alongside others who are starkly troubled, like an aging man cared for by his young grandson and a woman with two daughters abandoned by her husband. Looming in even greater chaotic relief are two developmentally-challenged adults, “oversized children” with children themselves, who are victimized by the town’s intolerance and by an abusive relative. Benediction traces the dying days of Dad Lewis as well as the trials of the new preacher in town, exploring both the boundlessness and limits of neighbourly and familial love. And more on Our Souls at Night in a moment.

These brief outlines might lead you to think that the novels are bleak postmodern studies of unforgiving circumstances and lives without choices, but, in fact, Haruf manages a skillful balance. Integrity and hope are stacked right up beside despair and dissolution. What will people do with the surprising twists of their existence? In these “craziest times ever,” some crumple, some cope, some conquer. 

Additionally, Haruf’s gifted eye gazes beyond his characters to the wondrous density of the world in which they reside: “greasy pieces of machinery like cogwheels, old bearings, and shank bolts,” “cheatgrass, redroot and soapwort like ragged stands of tiny gray trees,” and sky “as blue as just-washed café crockery.” His account of the barnyard autopsy of the exquisitely-named horse, Easter, is scrupulous writing, capturing the aching revulsion of death and the dignity of a creature resplendent to its very muscles and entrails.

About his passion for such lucidity, Haruf explains in a cozine.com interview, “Henry James said that, ‘A writer is someone upon whom nothing gets lost.’ What he meant by that, I think, is that you’re paying attention to how people talk, and how they move, how they dress, how they respond to things. So I’m an unapologetic eavesdropper and gossiper. Those things are important to me. You’re trying to pay attention to all around you.”

Haruf cites Hemingway, Faulkner and Chekhov as major influences. His own style is straightforward, even ascetic: “If I had a lyrical gift like somebody like James Agee, I might write entirely differently. I don’t have that so I have gone very consciously in the other direction. I’ve tried to write as cleanly and simply and directly as I can without being simpleminded or simplistic.” Haruf’s conscientious delineation of the weather, the landscape and commonplace objects, “all that is glorious around us,” to borrow the title of a Barbara Crooker poem, enhances the credibility of his storytelling. The cumulative emotional effect of his lack of flourish is an impression of core trustworthiness. Furthermore, the restraint implies that some things are indeed inexpressible – the inscrutability of time with its braided joys and sorrows, the ineffable within the conventional, human agonies and glories that defy dissection.

The titles of Haruf’s novels allude to a Christian framework. Haruf was the son of a Methodist pastor about whom he remarked, “He wasn't an intellectual, he was not a sophisticated speaker, but he was, in my view, a true Christian.” Plainsong’s epigraph indicates that a plainsong is the “unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” The epigraph of Eventide quotes the first stanza of the Henry F. Lyte hymn, “Abide with Me.” Benediction provides its definition as an epigraph: “the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.” Collectively, the novels present a proving ground for the influence of the Christian faith in a contemporary setting. Reverend Lyle and a few other characters, not as overtly religious, offer examples of self-sacrificial involvement in the lives of their neighbours. But, overall, the Christianity in Holt is disappointing: inherited, confused, inconsequential. Swearing abounds, “Jesus” and “God” as throwaway expletives sprinkled liberally in daily conversation. It’s an authentic transcription of current vernacular, but its omnipresence suggests something more.

At first the intimations seem innocuous. Repeated references to dust and light. On almost every page, in fact. Inklings about the connectedness of earth and heaven. A reverence for a reality that is grounded in the physical properties of this world but may stretch beyond.

When an old man dies on the farm, he “seemed to settle in to the dirt more comfortably.” When a depressed mom lies unmoving on her bed, “pencils of light are shining in” beneath the blinds. Candlelight flickers on a filthy ceiling as a young woman is abused sexually by her boyfriend and his friend. No matter what is happening, whether decorous or debauched, Haruf incorporates these familiar ephemeral stand-ins for the human and the divine: “Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.” For me, the telling thing is that the light is all-pervading, even more ubiquitous than dust and dirt. In Plainsong, desperate pregnant Victoria crystallizes the metaphor: “The sun was shining but what else was there?” Her context is bitter but there is truth hidden within.

Haruf’s craftsmanship in utilizing diverse images of dust and light to point to the intangible is consummately light-handed. Embedded in his factual prose style, the intentionality of these descriptions might be overlooked. But the imagery is bolstered by those individuals whose innate grace and mercy echo like gifts. And then there are those frequent dismissive references to God’s name, divine presence always there even if unnoticed, unacknowledged or despised.

Our Souls at Night, written while Haruf was ill, is narrowly focused – two seniors seek companionship in the evening of their lives. Seventy-year-old Addie Moore invites Louis Waters to sleep with her at night. He is taken aback, but she’s not inviting sex. She just wants someone to talk to in the loneliest hours. “I’m talking about getting through the night,” she says. She insists she doesn’t care what people think.

Louis is hesitant. “Don’t you have any faith?” she asks him. And so they begin to spend nights together. Platonic at first, their friendship becomes intimate as they share their histories. Addie confesses, “I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.” Louis, in turn, professes, “I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self.” He does have faith, after all.

But complications arise, despite their protestations that they are old enough to do what they want, despite Addie’s assertion, “We have all the time ahead of us.” Her son is struggling with marital problems and a failing business. Her six-year-old grandson Jamie comes to spend the summer. Undeterred, Addie and Louis continue their nights together. They are generous to Jamie, taking him camping and getting him a dog. Louis, especially, invests in the boy, teaching him practical skills and how to take pleasure in small things like baby mice.

Predictably, the couple’s earnest efforts are mistrusted. Misconstrued. Things fall apart. In the end, undefeated, they reach out to each other from a distance: “We’re still talking. For as long as we can. For as long as it lasts.”

Our Souls at Night caps Haruf’s writing career with elegiac tenderness. “I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could,” he said just before his death. In the characters of Addie and Louis, Haruf comes closer than he ever has to disclosing his personal voice. His wife Cathy says he told her: “I’m going to write a story about us.”

What enthralls me about Haruf’s work, above all else, is finally this: his unwavering insistence on the honour of being human, even though sprung from dust to return to dust, in a light-drenched world that dazzles.

  • Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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