Writing to a friend in 1896, Willa Cather once explained there was more than prairies in her fiction: “There is no God but one God, and Art is his revealer.”
Since Cather died, the plains have been the birthplace of some of the most spiritually engaged fiction in American letters. From Wright Morris and his elegantly constructed novels to the recent Gilead books of Marilynne Robinson, the best work of the region is often engaged with questions of faith.
If Robinson’s fiction pursues this inquiry with King James rhythms, the work of her contemporary, Kent Haruf, has quietly explored a more skeptical, earthy form of devotion.
Like Robinson, Haruf has set most of his fiction in one place — Holt, Colo., a small town in the eastern part of the state, where diner talk circles the rise and fall of wheat prices. A recurring group of characters merge and expand with each book.
From “The Tie that Binds” (1984) to “Benediction” (2013), we follow the people of Holt through the paces of life — births and deaths, affairs, abandonments. They do not feel like a cast of characters so much as a congregation, tilted toward God but wrestling with the earthly life.
“Our Souls at Night” is Haruf’s last book. He died last November, shortly after it was completed, bringing the saga of Holt to a breathtaking close. Lateness — and second chances — have always been a theme for Haruf. But here, in a book about love and the aftermath of grief, in his final hours, he has produced his most intense expression of that yet.
As the book begins, Addie Moore walks down the street to her neighbor Louis Waters and makes a surprising proposal. “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”
Addie and Louis have reached their seventies solvent, but alone. Their spouses have died; their gardens are tidy, but their nights are lonely. Her proposal is hardly indecent. She merely wants companionship.
The scenes depicting Louis’s nervous preparation for their first sleep together shine with a luminous, humble clarity. “He trimmed his fingernails and toenails and at dark he went out the back door and walked up the back alley carrying a paper sack with his pajamas and toothbrush inside.”
Addie and Louis share a glass of wine in her kitchen, the air clouded with memories of their former partners. Their lives, held on pause so long, are about to begin again, but first they must get to know each other.
And thus night by night, like senior-age Scheherazades, they crawl into bed and tell each other the story of their lives: the missed opportunities, the happinesses, the great and unsolvable griefs, the questions that remain. The children who will never stop being children.
In a country where so many people are living so much longer, you almost wonder why a book of this nature has not emerged sooner. Packed into less than 200 pages are all the issues late life provokes.
Both Addie and Louis feel guilt at first, but eventually their happiness gently pushes it back, as if a dish refused. They hold hands in public, and then kiss, and then carefully venture back into the world of simple pleasures: lunch with a companion, theatre, talking at night in the dark.
Just as their relationship takes flight it confronts the sheering wind of their children’s rebuke. Addie’s son is entering a midlife crack-up, his marriage and career collapsing, and his mother’s choice feels like a betrayal.
For a brief period, Addie and Louis take in Addie’s grandchild, Jamie, while his parents undergo a painful separation. Haruf’s depiction of Louis’s tentative, gentle stewardship of this surrogate grandchild is a set piece of tenderness and beauty.
With “Benediction,” Haruf’s novel about a dying man and the community around him, it seemed the Holt series had reached a pinnacle. Here, the book seemed to be saying, is how our lives end, still searching forgiveness, watching for grace.
“Our Souls at Night,” however, provides a startling coda. Talking at night, Addie and Louis relive the departures that have marked their lives and debate whether there is an afterlife.
Scene by scene, some chapters but a page long, Haruf’s novel provides a kind of answer. We have no idea what awaits us, so we must proceed as if we are living in the afterlife, our actions not small but eternal.
Our Souls at Night
By Kent Haruf
Knopf, 192 pp., $24
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist” and editor of Freeman’s, a biannual literary journal launching in October.