OUR SOULS AT NIGHT. By Kent Haruf. Knopf. 179 pages. $24.
“Our Souls at Night,” Kent Haruf’s valedictory sixth novel — he died in November 2014 — opens with an unorthodox proposal. Addie Moore, a neighbor, pays a call on Louis Waters to ask: “I wonder if you’d consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me. ... I’m talking about getting through the night.” She continues, “The nights are the worse, don’t you think?” Addie and Louis are both in their 70s, widowed, and ready to test the limits of freedom.
For this last book, Haruf returns to lonely, austere Holt, Colorado, his fictional town on the high plains northeast of Denver.
More Winesburg then Mayberry, Holt and its residents are shaped by physical solitude and emotional reticence. Addie and Louis, like many of their neighbors, have lived in houses full of secrets, where seismic feelings are forced underground.
Haruf’s spare story outlines a tame revolution, much of it told through muted conversations in the dark. Slowly, incrementally, the narrative opens up and what began as a gesture toward new experience becomes the very essence of what a free life might be. Louis Waters is “a high school English teacher in a little dirt-blown town” who feels that he’s missed his chance to do something splendid. When Addie Moore makes her offer, he has a haircut and a shave, trims his fingernails and toenails, packs his pajamas and toothbrush in a brown paper bag, and shows up at her back door the next evening. On subsequent nights, at Addie’s insistence, he will walk down the sidewalk in full view of their neighbors and enter through the front door. Addie knows the tyranny of small-town judgment, and she won’t do something right as if it were something wrong. She tells him, “I’ve made up my mind not to care what people think,” a resolve that Haruf puts to the test in painful ways.
As they lie side by side in the dark, it becomes clear that Louis is exactly what Addie was hoping for, “someone nice.”
Haruf’s fiction ratifies ordinary, nonflashy decency, but he also knows that even the most placid lives are more complicated than they appear from the outside.
Addie tells about the death of her 11-year-old daughter, Connie, who was chased into the street, and an oncoming car, by her little brother, Gene. The house and its memories were a curse to her husband and to Gene, but Addie made them hang on to it as a “sacred spot.”
Louis’s past holds a long-ago adultery that broke up his family for a while. When he laments that his wife never got what she wanted out of him, Addie replies, “Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.”
The family, in Haruf’s fiction, is an imperfect structure. Alone or together, his characters grope in the darkness and tend, like Addie and Louis, to find unorthodox solutions to the problem of loneliness. Complications, of course, ensue for everyone who dares and dreams. Still, their patch of happiness becomes a site of hope for others in the town.
Haruf admires bravery, the sort of unexpected boldness, for instance, that causes the aged McPherson brothers to take in a pregnant teenager in “Plainsong,” his most famous novel. In a funny metafictional moment, Addie and Louis discuss Kent Haruf’s books, including the plausibility of two old ranchers helping out a young girl. Addie even suggests, “He could write a book about us.”
Kent Haruf made his own bold move in writing this very book as he was dying of lung disease. Normally one to spend years on a single book, Haruf completed a draft of “Our Souls at Night” in 45 days and was still working with his editor only days before he died. The novel is a plainspoken vernacular farewell to the life he was leaving behind.
Haruf may have achieved Louis Waters’s wish for a good life: “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what happens each day.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.