I remember that I first read Kent Haruf when I was a bookseller at Lemuria and he had published Plainsong, a book that would go on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. I was so taken with his honest observations, the simple beauty of his language, and his ability to bring great dignity to characters who lead quiet lives. I loved Plainsong so much that I went back to read his previous two books, both of which are set in the same small high plains town of Holt, Colorado. (This is not a series of books, mind you. They just happen to take place in one small town.)
Thus when I heard that Haruf had a new book coming out this year, I was fairly chomping at the bit to get at it. Like his previous novels, Benediction takes Holt for its setting, and also like them, it's a slow and steady build. "Dad" Lewis is the main character, and he learns on the first page that he has cancer and that he's not long for this world. Dad is an older gentleman, hardworking and well-respected locally--if not a scion of the town, then certainly part of its backbone. He's honest and dependable, and while he has certainly been a good husband to his wife of many decades, he's less sure of the kind of father he was to his children, particularly his son. Dad's bedside recollections form much of the book, as he revisits past events that have marked him--most haunt him, but occasionally we are privy to quiet moments of joy, too.
In the meantime, other characters drift in, such as Dad's neighbor woman whose young granddaughter has come to live with her, or the new preacher in town who is in a constant struggle with his wife and son, or an elderly friend whose middle-aged daughter has moved in with her, and even Dad's two children, now adults themselves. Benediction is definitely a slow and deliberate read, but by the time you get to the hundred page mark (or so), you're so fully entrenched with the lives of these people that it's sometimes startling to realize that these are not people you know; they are not your neighbors. But their stories seem so utterly familiar, so like your neighbors and your coworkers and the once-removed friends-of-friends.
I really do feel that Haruf has his finger on the pulse of small-town Americana: the hard work, the dreams, the aspirations, and the inevitable realization that your life is not what you thought it would become. He reveals with clinical but gentle precision the foibles of these small town folks, and he is pure genius at finding beauty in the quotidian and revealing the quiet dignity of humanity.
I am not a Christian, but I am deeply moved when, on those rare occasions, I see the true message of Christianity brought to light. Not from those storefront Christians who are more interested in being seen in church than actually following the teachings of Christ, and certainly not from those people who sport those God-awful (pun intended) plastic bracelets proclaiming WWJD as if to indicate their membership in an elite club. In a chapter a little more than halfway through Benediction, the new preacher in town tries something new with his congregation. Instead of kowtowing to the local sentiment regarding the war in Iraq and the 9-11 tragedy, he wants his congregation to ask themselves: really, what would Jesus do? The preacher starts with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, and how maybe Jesus was only speaking metaphorically:
Because we all "know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How good 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...
But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn't kidding? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand the cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate?...
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. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we're finished you won't even know how to look for the places where they used to be...We can do all of these things to you. And more.
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 goodwill 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, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture...In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you've done: We are going to love you... (pp 140-141)"Unfortunately the congregation interrupts the preacher before he's finished and they raise their voices in protest in hatred, most of them walking out, shaking their heads with righteous indignation. Because apparently that's not what their version of Jesus would do. I was crying when I read those passages and I'm tearing up again now as I transcribe them, because it's that kind of shit that moves me rather deeply. No, I'm not a Christian, but then again, neither are most Christians I know.
I got a little off topic there, but seriously: just read Benediction. If you value quiet books of real substance over plot-driven novels with murders and/or love triangles (and I'm not saying these books don't have their rightful place on the same shelf--about one quarter of my book reviews fall under those headings), then you should read Kent Haruf.
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, provided at my own request by one of my terrific sales reps. Knopf will publish it in the US in late February 2013.