In “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” N. Scott Momaday describes the Great Plains: “Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion of objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning is to lose the sense of proportion.”
Kent Haruf’s new novel, “Benediction,” returns to the setting of his earlier “Plainsong” and “Eventide,” the small town of Holt, set on the sunswept high plains of eastern Colorado. The writing fits the landscape: The description is spare, and it is at first hard to judge the story’s proportions. Haruf is a plain-spoken stylist; his sentences have the elegance of Hemingway’s early work. The picture they paint works by accretion and juxtaposition. As Haruf’s precise details accrue, a reader gains perspective: This is the story of a man’s life, and the town where he spent it, and the people who will try to ease its end.
The central character is Dad Lewis, the 77-year-old owner of Holt’s hardware store, dying of cancer. There’s no suspense as to that ending: It is summer when the story begins, and Lewis won’t live to see fall. He spends his last weeks in the company of a handful of relatives and townspeople — his wife and daughter, a neighbor and her orphaned granddaughter, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter, the town’s new pastor and his family — and one haunting absence, that of his estranged son, Frank.
This is an ensemble piece, a portrait of a community, much like David Rhodes’ “Driftless.” As the novel unfolds, the various characters’ back stories and past sins are sketched, though not fully — Haruf is reticent about his characters’ secrets. This gets in the way of the storytelling perhaps once: The idealistic pastor and his tired wife and angry son might have used a bit more filling in. Yet Haruf’s determined realism, which admits that not all of our past actions or the reasons behind them are knowable, even to ourselves, is one of the book’s satisfactions. Reading Haruf, one thinks of Charles Baxter’s comment on writing by and about Midwesterners: “They don’t give up their autobiographies all that easily. You have to pry it out of them. We’re not like Southerners that way.”
And what emerges between these characters is not the web of interrelated past histories and secrets one would find in a Southern novel. Instead, the stories of these varied lives remain isolate, one here, one there. Only in their angles and distances from one another does the sweep of life on the plains become apparent.
St. Paul writer John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010.