Monday, October 19, 2015

Kent Haruf

This morning I’m going to depart from my usual practice of reviewing a single book in order to pay tribute to the life-work of Kent Haruf, whom I would characterize as a superb writer of the heart. Again, I am surprised that I only recently heard of this amazing writer who died in 2014. For reasons hard to explain, I feel sad that I didn’t get a chance to read him while he was still alive. In the last two weeks, I have read up almost everything he published, including his posthumously published little novel, Our Souls at Night.

Haruf’s writing is simple and bare-boned, and all of it centers on a single small town, Holt Colorado. There is a generosity of spirit in this man that shines forth from each of his short novels. Our northwest treasure, Ursula Le Guin, describes his lovely writing much better than I ever could.
His courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustrations, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction…Haruf is in fact a stunningly original writer in a great many ways…He talks quietly, intimately, yet with reserve as one adult to another. He’s careful to get the story right. And it is right, it’s just right; it rings true.
Characters recur in each of his novels, and the novels themselves read in many ways like collections of short stories. Harold and Raymond McPherson are two brothers who live together all their lives on a small ranch seventeen miles outside the small town of Holt. Neither ever marries. But a particularly enlightened and wise teacher in the high school decides to try to help a young girl in her class who is pregnant and has been kicked out of her own home. She stumbles on the idea of taking the girl, Victoria Robideaux, out to the McPherson’s ranch. She already knows of the gentle hearts of the two brothers, and she believes that having the girl stay with them while she is waiting for the birth of her daughter will assuage their loneliness while providing the girl safe haven. The relationship of the three is developed in three of Haruf’s novels: Plainsong, Benediction, and Eventide. It is a love story at its finest—innocent, enduring, and so simply laid out. When Victoria has her daughter, Katie, the four live together for a time until the brothers arrange for Victoria to go off to college.

In Benediction, Harold dies as a result of a ranching accident, and Raymond is left alone for the first time in his life. Although the pathos is always understated in Haruf’s writing, he manages to display an emotional intelligence that I find to be exceptionally rare in any writer, and especially in male authors. As a friendship begins to develop between Raymond and a woman who was a nurse in the hospital  where he was treated for injuries suffered in the same accident that killed his brother, she questions him about how he can manage without his brother.
How will you manage?

I’ll think of something. Hire somebody I expect.
It must be terribly hard wtihout your brother here anymore.
It’s not the same. I’s not anything like it. Harold and me, we was together all our lives. 
You just have to go on, don’t you.
He looked at her. People always say that, he said. I say as much myself. I don’t know what it means though. He looked out the window behind her where the night had fallen. The yardlight had come on and there were long shadows in the yard.
While Haruf understands all too well the pain and misery in the world, and the casualties of poverty, he also sees a simple goodness in some people—a young boy whose parents die and who then cares for his aging grandfather. The schoolteacher who rescues Victoria and is catalyst for the sweet relationship between her and the tough old brother ranchers.

In his final book, Our Souls at Night, published posthumously in 2015, he explores the relationship between two elderly people who decide to spend their nights together, not for sex, but simply to hold hands and talk in the night. As Le Guin says, Haruf talks quietly, but he evokes so much from his readers. It is the brave 70+ woman who is courageous enough to suggest the nighttime arrangement with her near neighbor. Although initially clandestine, the two soon decide to brave the gossip and narrow-mindedness of their small town and to meet publicly and stop trying to  hide his nightly trips to his neighbor (carrying his pajamas and toothbrush in a paper sack).

As always, the story is told with wonderful simplicity, the language spare and unsentimental.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk…
I’m not talking about sex.
I wondered.
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Yes. I think so.
The beauty and simplicity of this man’s writing cannot, I think, be made manifest by quoting passages. He is so patient in developing his stories, and the tug at the heart builds gradually. While he clearly understands simple kindness and loyalty in characters, he also understands clearly the viciousness and cruelty in others.

His stories are among the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Simplicity and kindness, the magic of a simple gesture, of unexpected words of encouragement.

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