“Our Souls at Night,” Kent Haruf’s final novel — he died this past November — chronicles a love affair between a widow and a widower in Haruf’s fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, the setting of his earlier novels “Plainsong,” “Eventide” and “Benediction.”
Seemingly in midstride, the novel begins, “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.” Haruf writes concisely, and straightforward reportage like “an evening in May just before full dark” contains the story in a handful of words: new love springing forth late in life.
The 70-year-old Addie makes a surprising request of Louis: She wants him to come to her house at night and sleep with her. Not to have sex, but to talk and to lie “warm in bed, companionably.” Louis takes her up on this, and they soon find themselves in territory as strange and uncharted to them as any teenager’s coming-of-age could be.
The pair’s unconventional arrangement provokes reactions in Holt ranging from small-town gossip and cattiness to frontier-style respect for privacy. Things become complicated when Addie’s son Gene, whose wife has abandoned him, leaves his 6-year-old son in Addie’s care. And it’s Gene, controlling and intolerant, who provides unmoving opposition to Louis and Addie’s growing love.
Haruf’s writing, so clearly influenced by Hemingway, is elegant in this last book. Critic Thomas Hermann, in Kenneth Rosen’s “Hemingway Repossessed,” argues that Hemingway was a literary Impressionist, using the repetition and careful placement of simple words to create complex stories, in the same way Cézanne used the repetition and placement of simple patches of color to create paintings.
Haruf does the like with his characters and the events of their lives; the characters and events appear simple and clear, and are presented with little connection or comment, almost as individual patches of color on a canvas. The incidents in a Haruf novel are artfully placed and gain meaning from context in the same way as the colors in an Impressionist landscape or the words in a Hemingway sentence.
Haruf’s writing makes a story not so much from how people’s lives connect as from the ways in which they fail to do so.
Haruf’s characters say as much. Late in the novel, Louis laments the ways in which he failed to make his marriage what his wife had hoped for, and Addie says, “It’s always two people bumping against each another blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.” Haruf spent a life making art from our blind collisions, and “Our Souls at Night” is a fitting finish.
John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010. He lives in St. Paul.