Nine years after the publication of his last novel, Kent Haruf returns with the final volume of what is likely to be thought of, along with its predecessor Eventide and 1999’s Plainsong, as the Holt Trilogy. Whether he’s portraying life in this small town on Colorado’s high plains or the complex inner lives of his outwardly simple characters, Haruf brings to this latest story the same empathy and insight that have marked his earlier novels.
Benediction unfolds over the course of a summer that measures out the final days of Dad Lewis, the septuagenarian owner of Holt’s hardware store. Outwardly he’s resigned to his fate, but his last months are dogged by regrets over nearly four decades of estrangement from his gay son and memories of his handling of an employee’s embezzlement that had tragic consequences. Though he’s not religious “in any orthodox way,” Dad’s life is governed by a strict moral code that simultaneously inspires acts of sternness and enormous generosity. His naturally taciturn character becomes even more so as his cancer advances, so that when his powerful emotions bubble to the surface the effect is even more impressive.
Haruf has created a memorable group of supporting characters to complement Dad and his immediate family—his daughter and his patient, loving wife of 55 years. The most distinctive is Reverend Rob Lyle, who’s been exiled to Holt from Denver after coming to the defense of a gay minister. His compassion is matched only by a candor in his preaching that reveals a self-destructive streak. Alene Johnson, the middle-aged daughter of a Lewis family friend, mourns a long-ago affair with a married man that marked the melancholy end of her search for love. Alice, an 8-year-old who lives with her grandmother, the Lewises’ next-door neighbor, learns some early lessons about life and death from watching Dad’s decline. Bred in the harsh beauty of the rugged Colorado landscape, the lives of these characters possess an admirable stoic quality.
There’s no manufactured drama in this novel, and that’s of a piece with Haruf’s previous books. The mastery he displays in this simple, quiet story, and in all his fiction, lies in portraying what one character thinks of as “the little dramas, the routine moments,” what he calls the “precious ordinary.” That Haruf can bring those moments to life with such precision and beauty is ample reason to savor his work.