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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: 'Benediction'

By Kent Haruf
Literary Fiction
January 2014
Vintage Paperback edition
ISBN: 978-0307950420

When the big things in life happen, people often take stock and realize what really matters to them -- what people, what events, even what principles. When a big thing happens to a character of a novel, bringing the perfect tone to that taking stock -- and being able to show, rather than tell what really matters -- can make a sad story transcendent.

That's what happens in Kent Haruf's Benediction. Dad Lewis has owned and operated the hardware store in a small high plains town for decades. He is now dying of cancer. His wife Mary is overdoing it and ends up in the hospital. She's one tough cookie -- she walks home after the enforced bedrest. But the Lewises are pragmatic and are the kind of people who naturally do the right thing. In this case, it's sending for their daughter, Lorraine, to come home from Denver to help and be with them.

As in other Haruf novels, there are other small families and groups of people who enter the orbit of the main characters. Next door, Berta May's young granddaughter has come to live with her after the child's mother dies. Alice is a quiet little girl. Lorraine, who lost a daughter, is drawn to her, as are Alene, a teacher probably ready to retire, and her widowed mother, Willa.

Also coming into the Lewis circle is the new preacher in town, fish-out-of-water Lyle, who has an unhappy wife and teenage son. He is a fascinating character -- someone who believes deeply in doing the right thing, but who is unable to communicate that belief or put it into action effectively. He was sent to the Lewises's small town after mucking things up in a bigger church. He's destined to repeat his mistake here.

As Dad Lewis grows more ill and loses his strength, the biggest regret of his life is the estrangement of his son. Frank turned out differently from his father, and his father cast him aside in hurt and anger. Although Dad and Mary saw Frank after he left home, it's been years. Lorraine was in contact with him for a bit, but she also has lost touch.

The depth of Dad Lewis's failure with his own son contrasts with the way he treated an employee who was stealing from the store. Dad fired him and told the man to leave town with his wife and kids. His wife offered herself to Dad in lieu of paying the money back and he turned her down. Months later, the man kills himself. Dad later found the young widow and kids, and helped them financially until she made a new life.

It's the kind of punishment and assistance Dad was never able to give to his own son.

The other characters also find ways in which to make up for the people who were taken from them, and for the things they were not able to do in the regular course of family events.

There is a quiet strength in Haruf's prose that gives the smallest acts the grandeur of epic movements. One afternoon, Mary and Lorraine grant Dad's wish for a last drive around town. They park in front of the store and watch the normal business going on inside the store. A customer buys something and leaves:
 ... and then the man swung around and came out through the open doors onto the sidewalk with the paper sack in his hand, coming directly toward them in the car, so near that they could see the buttons on his summer shirt, before he turned and went up the block in the bright sun.
   Who was that, Daddy?
    I can't think of his name. But I know him. I'll think of it, he said. His voice sounded odd and then suddently he began to weep.
Dad then has them drive him out to the country, where the reader learns what happened to the main characters in Haruf's beautiful novel, Plainsong. It resonates even for someone who hasn't read the novel since it first came out in 1999.

This quiet strength works to great advantage in a major setpiece in the novel, when Lyle tries to deliver a homily about the Sermon on the Mount, and loving one's enemies. With the war on terrorism in full bloom, his sermon does not go well. Although Lyle's sermon does a wonderful job of explaining how there can be such a thing as a progressive believer in Christ in guiding how an individual can feel about both foreign and domestic policy -- ""And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. ... But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We'll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells, and water supplies, save your ancient artifcats and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you." -- the preacher's speech has a point about the way people act in everyday life as well:
 And so we know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How it feels to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can't love people who do evil. It's neither sensible nor practical. It's not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong. ... what if Jesus wasn't kidding? ... What if he meant every word of what he said? What would the world come to?
In Haruf's novel, time and unsought opportunities provide the chance to many of the characters perhaps not love their enemies, but to do good despite the evil or sad things that have been done to them. That characters in small towns living lives, but not of quiet desperation despite setbacks and heartache, would choose to carry on and do kind things for others, is in itself a benediction to the idea of a life well-lived. It is a way to seek goodness rather than evil, to seek the things that matter.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

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