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Keepable Sentences

Kevin Stevens

Benediction, by Kent Haruf, Picador, 258 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-144722752-6

Since 1984, when he published his first novel, Kent Haruf has been quietly establishing a reputation as one of America’s finest writers. Patiently, without personal fanfare, he has over three decades created a small but powerful body of work that, though it appears fixed in time and place and philosophy, in fact follows an arc of narrative development and broadening moral concern that is both uniquely American and profoundly universal. With Benediction, his fifth novel, Haruf has produced his finest expression yet of an aesthetic vision that, in spite of its exacting verisimilitude, achieves a mythic dimension rare in contemporary fiction.

Benediction tells the story of Dad Lewis, a husband and father and hardware-store proprietor in a small town on the high plains of the American west, who is dying of cancer. Though the novel’s action pivots on Lewis’s thoughts and memories in the face of death, the book has a breadth of human reference not unlike the open skies and wide vistas of its setting. One of Haruf’s signature strengths is his ability to weave interlocking narratives with such skill that readers get a deep experience of the variety and scope of the human condition without sacrificing the intensity and focus of the principal story. So, while we follow Dad’s struggles with physical debilitation and, more dramatically, the sorrows and regrets of a long life reassessed, we also get a clear sense of the inner lives and daily tribulations of his wife, Mary, his daughter, Lorraine, neighbours, friends, and co-workers. A substantive subplot tells the story of Dad’s minister, Rob Lyle, whose own crisis has familial, social, and political overtones that help convince us, if we didn’t already know, that a small town in rural America is as fruitful and contemporary a setting as any.

Haruf tells these stories in a style that is incisive, elegiac, and rhetorically rich. Clean and elegant, the prose allows a clear view of the novel’s multiple strands. Its secondary narratives not only extend the range of action and feeling, they also provide counterpoint to Dad’s story, offering variations on and alternatives to the bleakness of his failing life. Even characters who do not appear in the novel’s present, such as Dad’s parents and estranged son, Frank, have a vibrant presence via flashback, recollection, and dream. Haruf’s art is rigorous but transparent. Scene after scene, we appreciate that we are in the hands of a master of complex storytelling disguised as simple observation.

Haruf’s journey to mastery has been slow but steady. All his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. His first two, The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged, are in a familiar tradition of local American tales of constrained lives and their violent consequences, occasionally embellished with gothic touches and narrated in the first person by a minor character with a keen eye and a resonant turn of phrase. The influence of Faulkner is apparent. The voices and details ring true, but at times the books try too hard to make a big statement. These stories achieve what they set out to and are much more than apprentice-work, but with them Haruf seemed to be reaching for something that he wasn’t quite grasping.

However, with Plainsong, published in 1999 and nominated for a National Book Award, Haruf found a voice and a perspective to match his vision. Several powerful stories interlace: a high school teacher deals with his wife’s depression and the challenge of raising two young boys; a pregnant teenager is shut out of her home by her mother and taken in by two unmarried brothers; the teacher’s female colleague looks after her aging father as her own life is drawn to the troubled teenager and her fellow teacher. The characters are wonderfully observed, and their stories are eventful and intense without a hint of melodrama. And the novel’s voice is a triumph – measured, clear, and confident:

When he turned again to the bed he saw by the change in their faces that they were awake now. He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed. When he returned to the hallway he could hear them talking in their room, their voices thin and clear, already discussing something, first one then the other, intermittent, the early morning matter-of-fact voices of little boys out of the presence of adults. He went downstairs.

As Michiko Kakutani has said, in Plainsong Haruf “conjured up an entire community and ineluctably immersed the reader in its dramas”. With this book and its sequel, Eventide, and now with Benediction, Haruf faithfully captures the unique speech and behaviours of an American western town, in all their shades, while at the same time revealing what that community shares with all communities. As he has developed as a novelist, he has turned Holt, Colorado, into his Yoknapatawpha County. It contains the whole world.

When I asked Haruf about his loyalty to this setting and its gradually changing function in his fiction, he had this to say:

I discovered when I was in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that the geography I cared most about was the high plains of northeastern Colorado where I had grown up. A flat treeless windy place which most people drive across as fast as they can to get to Aspen and Vail and Steamboat Springs and Estes Park. It’s not a pretty place, but it’s beautiful, if you know how to look at it. At first I wanted to claim that part of the world as my own, to put it on the literary map; and I was very specific about details, and I think the writing had more description about landscape and was more complimentary and insistent. I think now what I’m trying to do is to suggest that Holt and Holt County are representative of the world at large, that what happens in Holt happens everywhere, that the people and the problems they have are universal; it’s just that everything is easier to see in Holt because of its size. In some ways, without claiming too much for it, I want to think of it as a kind of place out of Myth, as a kind of Anyplace or Everyplace ... I think I can set all the stories I want to tell in this little town that I’ve invented. It’s all there.

The magic that allows Haruf to return to Holt time and again with freshness and originality is primarily conjured by the perspicacity of his style – Hemingwayesque in the way it allows the truth of experience to shine through – and his skilful handling of point of view. The shift from first to third person after Where You Once Belonged was not simply a formal choice. The range of viewpoints in the later books gives readers a variety of human perspectives without sacrificing a consistent voice. It is a sort of a literary high-wire act that Haruf negotiates expertly; by withholding judgment and letting the events, as it were, speak for themselves, Haruf engages the reader’s sympathies with no surface sense of manipulation. Suspension of disbelief is total, though the art that achieves it is transparent.

The move from first person point of view to third person seems to me to be a logical evolution. The move from obsession about self to a wider interest in all that’s around you. Of course, you can immediately think of any number of writers and books that are exceptions to this rule. Writing in third person avoids the limitations and constrictions of first person; you no longer have to invent reasons for the narrator’s knowing what he knows. And the manipulation of the reader’s response to events can be more subtle. In the last three, third person books, I’ve tried to simply present the story, and have for the most part not allowed myself to go into the minds of the characters, except as their thoughts are suggested externally by dialogue and action and gesture, and I have tried to avoid offering a moral posture to the story, but tried to let that come from the reader’s own understanding of the book.

Yet Benediction, while it shares the virtues of this narrative mode with the two previous novels, does have several distinguishing features that broaden the scope of Haruf’s storytelling even further. Unlike Plainsong and Eventide, Benediction has been freed to move into the past, exploring via memory and hallucination experiences of several characters that happened earlier than the time frame of the novel’s current action. The reader benefits from this additional richness without losing immediacy.

I asked Haruf if this was part of his strategy writing this book.

In Plainsong the past could be assumed by what happened in the present. But in writing Benediction I found that I needed to make the past specific and detailed and very clear, because it had so much to do with the events and emotions of the present; and in fact I’m still presenting parts of the past at the end of the book in the scenes in which Mary is talking about how she and Dad Lewis met, and more insistently in the death bed scenes in which Dad imagines the people visiting him in his room. The fear is, in doing this, that you will impede the delivery of the story, and that the book will lose its shape. But I hope, as you suggest, that the book is richer for these scenes from the past, and that the story retains its immediacy – if I present these scenes as action, not simply as exposition. I decided not to warn the reader that something different was coming – by using italics, for example – but just to believe that the reader would quickly, on her own, understand where she was and when she was.

Death is present in every Haruf novel. It can be unexpected, violent, ironic, even comic. But nowhere does it stare at us with such intensity as in Benediction. Dad’s situation gives Haruf’s familiar themes of loneliness and the failure of communication – between family members, between men and women – a white-hot context. “This is a story about love and regret and hope and loss,” Haruf says, “about the death of an old sick man and the promise of life in a girl next door, a story within the circle of a family and their close friends, an isolated private circle. The story takes place almost exclusively in a house at the edge of town, at the edge of the open plain to the west: a not accidental setting.”

Haruf dramatises Dad Lewis’s confrontation with death with typical subtlety and variety: body language, dry humour, painfully honest exchanges, silence, and, most effectively, memory and hallucination. Towards the end, there is a powerful sequence where Dad believes he meets his dead parents, his gay son that he has cut off from his life, and a former employee and his wife who had suffered tragically after being run out of town by Dad for stealing from him.

The hallucinations are a brave storytelling choice – like dreams, such scenes are hard to pull off. But they work well, allowing Haruf to express Dad’s regrets very forcefully by putting his subconscious on full display, unfettered by the reticence he brings to bear on daily life. The details, physical and psychological, are savagely accurate and, as you would expect, supported by Haruf’s considerable powers of observation.

My wife has been involved with hospice for a number of years, and I was a hospice volunteer for a short while and I did keep my eyes open. I’m aware that dying people frequently have dreams and waking visions involving loved ones and spirits, and talk out loud to those they’re imagining; and it was this phenomenon that I wanted to make use of in Dad’s last dream-like conversations, particularly with his son, Frank. It was a way in which I could dramatize his remorse and regret about his son and about his change of heart at the end. These conversations don’t alter anything for Dad, except perhaps to deepen his agony, and perhaps there’s a kind of benediction in his reckoning, and maybe they deepen the reader’s understanding of him; in any case, he wants and needs a benediction, a blessing, and the same is true for all of these characters. In writing these scenes, again I didn’t want to warn the reader what was happening but to let that gradually become clear, by the circumstances and by the style and tone of the writing ... In many ways it seems to me that there is no conventional antagonist, that there’s no cruel and unlikable main character. Instead the make-up of some of the people themselves serves as antagonist (I’m thinking of Dad Lewis in particular), as if they’re divided against themselves. It also seems to me that death can be thought of as the antagonist; this can be seen in the lives of almost all of the characters, that in varying significant ways each has to find his or her way within the presence and shadow of death.

If death is this novel’s antagonist, then blessedness is its hero. And in a story of people “divided against themselves”, all characters have the need for benediction. The significance of the novel’s title and main theme is deepened by the book’s religious imagery. Haruf is the son of a Methodist preacher, and though he has said elsewhere that he grew away from the church as a young man and has not got back to it in any significant way since, Benediction feels inspired by the beatitudes and makes use of Christian imagery at key moments in the narrative. Yet these images, usually presented in a secular context, work beneath the surface, as a counterweight to the pragmatism and frequent coldness of the world’s political and social realities. Rob Lyle’s antiwar idealism, expressed from the pulpit, outrages his congregation, most of whom up and leave the church in a scene almost identical to a Sunday Mass from my own youth, when an Irish priest in our Montana parish spoke out against America’s involvement in Vietnam.

In one particularly lovely scene, Dad’s daughter, Lorraine, and several women neighbours take a dip in a stock tank.

Lorraine said, Well. Then she proceeded to take her clothes off and laid them out on a chair. She was white as cream and full breasted with blue veins in her breasts with a swatch of dark hair below her stomach to match the dark hair on her head. They looked at her. She raised her arms. Oh God, what a beautiful day. She stepped toward the tank in the hot manurey dirt and stepped up onto the concrete and leaned over and cupped her hands in the water, her bare back and legs shining in the sun, and doused her face and hair and her breasts and gasped, Oh God! Dear Lord! She lifted one foot onto the rim of the tank and brushed her foot off and stepped over into the water, her body halved, all of her full-fleshed body in the bright sun, and then lowered herself into the water and cried, Goddamn! Oh Jesus! and lay out in the water and disappeared and came up all white and shining. Jesus! Jesus! Then she stood up and turned to them. Come on, all of you, she called. Get in.

Haruf confirms the religious impulse behind this and other scenes in the book:

The women bathing in the stock tank is a kind of baptism, an initiation of Alice, the nine-year-old girl, into the circle of adult women, a moment in which the women teach her to do something as elemental as float, to keep her head above water. The preacher, Rob Lyle, takes the Sermon on the Mount as a literal injunction and in his own sermon wants to suggest to his congregation that there could be, for true Christians, another way of responding to violence, even including something as horrific as the destruction of the World Trade Center and the murder of the people inside. But his congregation reacts in the way that people have reacted to such ideas for the last two thousand years … I hope that these moments and these intimations of religion are intrinsic enough to the story, generally, that they don’t become obtrusive or annoying, that they don’t interrupt the narrative dream, as John Gardner calls it, but in fact are a part of it … I was accused once at a reading during a Q and A session of there not being anything religious in Plainsong because there were no scenes set inside a church. To which I suggested that religion does not only occur within the walls of a church or temple or synagogue or mosque, that in fact these might be the last places you would find true religion. I further suggested that the McPheron brothers’ taking in a homeless unknown pregnant girl was a religious act, one that all religions would endorse as a basic tenet.

If Cormac McCarthy’s vision is shaped by the Old Testament, then Haruf takes inspiration from the gospels, though always, as he says himself, in a way that is consistent with his aesthetic. Allied to this influence, is seems to me, is the way women provide a moral centre in Benediction. They are the peacemakers, and very different from the male characters in how they handle conflict and pain. And Haruf’s world is a tough one for women – most of their expectations are unfulfilled, and those that are fulfilled are cut short by separation, loss, or death. In the character of Alice, Haruf has created a counterpart to the young boys in Plainsong. The granddaughter of Dad Lewis’s neighbour, she is there to remind us of the human possibilities that can be forgotten in the hubbub and sorrow of life.

The women in Benediction … form among themselves a circle of compassion and generosity, despite the considerable problems they’ve each had in their lives. They are not defeated, nor distorted, by their experiences. They, and Alice, suggest an antidote, a counterpoint to the regret and remorse and death that Dad Lewis represents; Alice in particular is the opposite of Dad, as she is an emblem of youth and hope and promise and innocence, and she attracts people to her because of these qualities, and because she offers others the opportunity for affirmation and renewal. But these assertions of mine about this book have only occurred to me months after I’ve finished writing the book. I had none of this in mind as I was writing. I knew the story (finally, after a number of false starts) and the characters and the events, but I write out of imagination and day dreaming and intuition; I don’t really know what a book is about until after it’s finished.

Haruf’s emphasis on intuition is interesting, especially as his method of writing is focused on craft. He works sentences endlessly until he gets them right, and when he’s done with the final chapter, he’s done with the book. But behind the toil, or within it, magic is happening: the “narrative dream” is taking shape, as it must, as if organically generated. It is the magic of imagination.

Dad Lewis and his wife Mary … have a story and the people around them, their friends and neighbours and children, had to have stories, so I began to daydream and to imagine my way into the lives of all these people. The plot of the book, its storyline, its form, all came out of that imagining, that brooding. I knew all of this … before I began writing any of it. What I did every morning when I went to work was to try to write keepable sentences. The development of Benediction may sound obvious and linear when I describe it in the way I have, but it wasn’t that way at all.

Reading Haruf, I am often reminded of the great Russian realists, who have a similar compressed intensity and who spent much of their writing time examining the lives of ordinary people living in small communities in wide-open spaces. Less directly, his work reminds me of John McGahern, who also had a wonderful feel for the rhythms of rural life and the universality of fiction grounded in the lives of people close to the land. But Haruf’s stated influences are, as you would expect, primarily American.

The subject of influence is a somewhat mysterious matter, it seems to me. The way I write is partly due to the way I am as a person, and to what I’m not, and to the kinds of writers that appeal to me especially. If I were capable of the lyricism that James Agee, for example, is able to achieve so beautifully, I might write in a more lyrical, expansive way; but I’m not that kind of writer, I don’t have that talent. So I have gone the other direction and have tried to write in a simple direct way, trying to be very exact in what I say and how I say it, and not to try to write dazzling sentences but to make the right sentence for the right place, believing that if I used language carefully it could be pristine and clean, as if the words were minted this very morning. And I’m not a writer who uses metaphor, but prefers to say the thing straight out, for itself … Years ago when I was in college and first read Hemingway and Faulkner, I was so shocked and so taken by what they could do on the page, that I’ve never gotten over the shock and don’t want to (I’m thinking particularly of Hemingway’s short stories and Faulkner’s “The Bear”), and it was that experience that turned me into an English major, and made me want to spend the rest of my life reading and studying great writing. As for influence on my own writing, Hemingway’s wonderful eye and his simple declarative sentences were important to me, and Faulkner’s interest in and honest portrayal of country people were significant. In more recent years Chekhov has become the most important writer for me, along with one book by James Welch, Winter in the Blood. Of course there have been many others who’ve been important as well. I would say about myself that I’m not terribly widely read, as writers go, but I have read with attention, and I’ve read many books over and over and over.

Haruf’s modesty, on and off the page, can lead critics to focus on the plainness of his style and to draw sometimes facile comparisons between the flatness of the landscape his characters inhabit, their sometimes rough speech, and the leanness of his prose. However, even though plainness is a virtue in this instance, readers and critics can miss the rhetorical sophistication of his writing. Like an Irish storyteller, Haruf likes to disguise stylised and well-paced narratives as rambling discourse, especially when he has his characters tell stories.

Here is a passage from Eventide in which a local character tells the McPheron brothers a story over lunch:

I wonder if you ever heard this one. There was this time old John was carrying on with Lloyd Bailey’s wife. I seen them myself once, they was in her new Buick hid out down in the bar ditch alongside the tracks out at the Diamond T crossing, the car lights all shut off, that Buick bouncing on its springs a little and the radio turned down low playing something Mexican out of Denver. Well, mister, they was having theirselves a good time. Well, so that fall old John and Lloyd’s missus jumped up and run off to Kremmling across the mountains there and holed up in a motel room. Shacked up, living like man and wife. But it wasn’t nothing to do there unless you was a hunter and wanted to take a potshot at a deer or a bull elk. It’s just a little place, you know, along the river, and ruttin in a kingsize motel bed can get tiresome after a while, even if you can lay the room off on somebody else’s credit card. So after a while they come back home and she went back to Lloyd and says to him you going to let me come back or do you want to divorce me? Lloyd, he slapped her so hard it spun her head around, and he says all right then, I guess you can come back. Then Lloyd and her went off on a running drunk. When they come back they was still together. I believe they still are. Lloyd, he said it took him all of a two-week drunk to wash old John Torres out of his system.
How long did it take to wash him out of the wife’s system? Harold said.

Like Frank O’Connor or Sean O’Faolain, Haruf is adept at creating the illusion on paper of an oral storyteller’s voice. Part of that skill is his feel for the highly rhetorical language of his characters, especially the older ones, who grew up in a pre-television world. But the apparent directness of the Western speech he captures so well, like his style, is no simple matter. There are high levels of complexity in both that reviewers can fail to appreciate when they fixate on his prose as “plain” or “unadorned”. Dialogue, reported speech, and Haruf’s choice of word and phrase when describing setting and action are all of a piece – and it is easy for the reader to relax within the storytelling rhythm and fail to see the hard work that knits them together so well.

Haruf’s later novels offer readers a view of experience that, as in Tolstoy, takes in all of life, from the tragic to the transcendent, and presents it to us as if unfiltered by a shaping mind. And yet the shaping is there, painstakingly wrought, carefully refined, to the point where it surrounds the events of each story like sunlight. Such high art does not come easily or quickly; it takes Haruf many years to write a novel, so we should savour what he has given us so far. And in the meantime it is good to know that, even though it may be a while, he will eventually bring us back to Holt.

My writing ambitions, short and long term, as I’ve said above, are to make something representative and universal out of the flat treeless high plains of Colorado and the ordinary people I’ve invented who live there, by writing as well as I can about this place and these people. I would most hope to do something like Chekhov has done so wonderfully: make meaning and significance out of the ordinary and apparently simple – to notice the unnoticed ... I have another novel just barely beginning to form at the back of mind. We’ll see if turns into anything. But I know it won’t have a chase scene.

25/03/13

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

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