‘Benediction’ brings town to life

BENEDICTION. By Kent Haruf. Knopf. 272 pages. $25.95.

In the first few pages of “Benediction,” Kent Haruf’s splendid new novel, we learn that 77-year-old Dad Lewis, the longtime owner of a small-town hardware store who has lung cancer, will be dead before the summer is over.

Set in 2003 in Haruf’s own Yoknapatawpha County in the fictional town of Holt on Colorado’s eastern plains, “Benediction” takes us through that last summer in Dad’s life.

As he did in “Plainsong” (1999) and “Eventide” (2004), Haruf adopts a kaleidoscopic approach, slowly unfolding the lives of other characters as well, and often presenting them through a close, third-person voice that allows us inside their thoughts while preserving Haruf’s laconic, plain-spoken style.

As Dad lies awake at night “remembering everything, taking all of his years into account,” Haruf unspools his story. Dad’s memories pay no heed to chronology. Instead, we join Dad in reliving those sharp-edged pieces of his past that still live most fully, often because they involve unsettled accounts.

There is Dad’s onetime store clerk and that clerk’s family, whose lives take a dramatic turn when Dad catches the clerk stealing and runs him out of town.

There is Dad’s son, Frank, whom he lost when Frank was still a boy and whom he has not seen in years. And there are Dad’s long-dead parents, whom he himself left behind in Kansas, along with his bleak Dust Bowl childhood.

The picture that gradually forms is of a good but flawed man: much too hard but also scrupulously fair, still in love with his wife and 50-something daughter, but also acutely aware that he often was too busy running his store to give them all they needed.

Shunning the sentimental, Haruf gives this to us straight, in the same sort of terse, matter-of-fact way that Dad understands himself. Haruf treats his characters with similar respect, allowing us to grasp more of who they are precisely because he says less.

The characters in “Benediction” include an infatuated couple who want to get hitched and a worn-down wife who concludes that “love doesn’t last.” They include women in their 70s and 80s who stayed married until their spouses died and their aging daughters, for whom love has proven elusive.

We listen to an idealistic minister, preaching the gospel of love, and watch hate-filled townspeople who turn against him as a result. We hear about one suicide and watch preparations for another, while also bearing witness to unbearable tenderness. Haruf gently reminds us that none of us can ever know all of what the minister aptly describes as “ordinary lives, passing without their knowing it.”

There’s an echo of Thornton Wilder in that phrase, and it’s Grover’s Corners or the Maine coast of Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Country of the Pointed Firs” that “Benediction” calls to mind, as we join Dad in his deepening appreciation for those around him, while counting down the remaining hours, in his life and our own.

Reviewer Mike Fischer writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.