It isn’t often that I finish a book and feel that I know, and love, the characters. Kent Haruf’s writing always does this to me. When the book ends, I feel like I’ve said goodbye to some old friends.
Benediction is the third in a trilogy of novels about life in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It seems to be somewhere northeast of Denver and light years away from any metropolitan city I’ve ever visited. Life is slower, people are more connected – not necessarily better, nicer, more tolerant, but the citizens of Holt seem to live with the agreement that they ARE each others keepers when times get hard.
And in Benediction, time gets hard for Dad and Mary Lewis. The book opens in the doctor’s office where “they could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.” Where matters stood was that Dad – so-called by everyone, related or not – didn’t have much time left. When they return home, the couple sit outside to consider what needs to be done. Mary brings him a beer.
He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.
It is with exactly this spare and devastating prose that Haruf takes us through the last days of a man’s life. Dad wasn’t a perfect man; he was a perfectly believable man who regrets his mistakes, loves his family, is respected by his community, and moves slowly toward redemption at the end of his life. As a man of the world, he fears he will leave only a small ripple. He has Mary drive him past the hardware store he owns, now run by his employees, and as he looks through the window at a man making a purchase, he begins to cry. Later he says, “It was only a simple little goddam thing. That’s all it was.” When she says, “What was, honey?” he replies:
Me crying in town back there at the store. That’s what set me off. It was my life I was watching there. That little bit of commerce between me and another fellow on a summer morning at the front counter. Exchanging a few words. Just that. It wasn’t nothing at all.
But in spite of Dad’s dismissal, we see the impact that his life had – good and bad – on those who moved within his circle. We come to love and understand him. Through his eyes we see the beauty and wonder of a simple life.
The book is introduced with a definition of “benediction” – the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness. Through Dad’s eyes, and those of his loving family and community, we experience the poignancy, the humanity, and the fragility of a blessed life.