BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holt, Colorado – a blunt-edged town on the eastern edge of Colorado’s high and dry plains – where time ticks like the cooling engine of car. Storms build in billowing clouds on the horizon, summers grind through with breathless heat, winters drive ice and snow from across the flat middle of the country. It is as it has always been. It seems so little changes in this quiet, gently ticking community, but one moment it’s the 1960’s, the next it’s the new millennium, and you find yourself at the edges of your life.

So it must seem to Dad Lewis, on octogenarian who has just been told his future is measured in weeks. When he wipes a shirtsleeve across the Holt’s dusty surface and peers in, he sees a world so very different from the one he shaped when he was a young husband, growing a new business, a daughter and a son. The new preacher, banished from Denver for speaking out for a gay colleague, is hardly the model for atonement he expected as he waits to be ushered into the next life; the daughter of his neighbor, once a fresh and bright teacher, has returned a retired spinster; “the War” refers not to sandy beaches on France’s Atlantic coast or even jungles in Southeast Asia, but to barren mountains in Afghanistan and vast deserts in the Middle East. His children moved on long ago. His wife is an old woman.

But in this brief interlude between learning his long life is ending and taking his last breath, Dad Lewis has an opportunity to make one last impression before he returns as he came: from nothing into nothing. What will his Benediction be?

This is less a story than a series of vignettes about regret and compassion. Kent Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time plays out.

Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But as Lyle, the preacher-turned-pariah, learns during his midnight rambles down silent streets, what is really there is rarely what you see.

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