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Book review

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf

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Elmore Leonard is not the only writer to get a story out of Yuma. In the early 1980s, the novelist Kent Haruf lived in the Colorado mining city.

Ever since then he has been turning out some of the most keenly-carpentered fiction in America about an imaginary town very much like it.

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Holt, Colo., is a tiny one-stoplight town in the eastern part of the state, where teenagers drag race down Main Street on weekends and cows munch grass not far from the post office.

Most people who grow up there, stay there, and book by book, Haruf has revealed their stories in novels that have grown increasingly interested in the spirit level.

“Benediction,” his latest, is the apogee of this evolution, as it should be, for it’s a novel about death and the things we share. Dad Lewis is in bad shape. He has cancer, it’s incurable, and as the gears of his final unwinding click into place, he realizes he must get his affairs in order.

There’s his hardware store to pass on, goodbyes to say, and a son, Frank, whose disappearance haunts him more than his own impending demise.

Facing these tasks with a great deal of dignity, rather than a rage against the dying of the light, Dad begins to learn how to count the good fortune he has enjoyed in his 77 years.

His wife, Mary, puts on a brief, brave front and then promptly faints. She enters the hospital for three days, and while Dad subsists on soup, he begins to appreciate all she does and has done for him.

In her absence, a kindly neighbor from across the street comes to look in on him, bringing her granddaughter, a sweet girl who is both curious about and intensely afraid of the dying man.

As the book’s chapters grow in length the circle of the community expands. The Johnson women, a widowed mother and her middle-aged, unmarried daughter, enter the picture, and in a series of intensely scripted vignettes Haruf shows us why the younger one lives under a shadow of missed opportunity.

Dad’s daughter, Lorraine, learns of her parents dual conditions and comes arrowing home from Denver, leaving behind a boyfriend about whom she’s none too thrilled. Dad senses her equivocation and wants to know: Is she happy?

Holt is a small town, so all of them know about the Rev. Lyle, who was sent there from Denver after something controversial happened. As we follow Dad’s worsening condition, Haruf gives us glimpses into the pastor’s troubled family life.

Like Dad, Lyle has a son whose reckless energy is a force he cannot control. Lyle, however, is not a man to pray for missed chances, and so his son runs dangerously free, risking his heart, as young people do.

There is a deep, satisfying music to this book, as Haruf weaves between such a large cast of characters in so small a space. All of them, in one way or another, struggle with the blessing of a body; all of them suffer a loss. All of them feel they need someone else’s permission to be happy.

Haruf’s novels have always proceeded with a satisfying clockwork pace; seasons pass from one to the next, people make good and bad decisions and persist without a lot of complaint.

“Benediction” is his finest-tuned tale yet, though, for it shows how Dad’s life, even as it nears the end, remains grooved within the lives of so many people around him.

One of the saddest scenes takes place at the hardware store, where Dad checks in on his books one last time, and his two loyal clerks try their best to keep dry eyes. Later on, they say a proper goodbye at his deathbed.

Haruf, it should be noted, is the son of a Methodist preacher, and a sometime hospice volunteer. In “Benediction,” he proves he has absorbed the devotional mindfulness of these fields without their rhetoric.

This is an unflinchingly realistic novel about what it is like to help someone die. Haruf paints the scene with a clarity that honors it all: the coffee pot perpetually burning, the diapers and pain medication, the reflexive, hopeful asking after well-being when it is clear nothing good is on the horizon.

As the days wind down, Dad recedes from view. His body is in the frame, but it’s mostly crowded with other people. Social workers, well-wishers, even ghosts. After her daughter collapses in exhaustion, Mary climbs into bed with her husband so he will not be alone if his moment comes in the small hours.

Thirty years since his first novel, “The Tie That Binds,” was published, the scope of Haruf’s work is coming into view. He is a novelist, like Marilynne Robinson, who strums the biblical chords of our self-myths.

We live with hubris and die praying for dignity. Strangely, wonderfully, the moment of a man’s passing can be a blessing in the way it brings people together. In real life, it is a force too charged, often, to rest. “Benediction” recreates this powerful moment so gracefully it is easy to forget that, like Holt, it is a world created by one man.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”
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