Benediction ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
I met writer Kent Haruf at one of his book-signing events in St. Louis. We spoke for a minute about Cormac McCarthy and Oscar Hijuelos and I came away with a signed copy of his novel Plainsong to add to my collection of signed books. His 2013 novel Benediction continues his string of quietly impressive books set on the high plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. The main character here is Dad Lewis (we never know his first name), lifelong owner of the town’s hardware store. He has a faithful wife named Mary and two children, Lorraine and Frank. When we meet him, he is old and sick and doesn’t have long to live. His daughter Lorraine, now middle-aged, returns home to be with him in his final stretch. He longs to reconnect with his estranged son Frank before he dies, but Frank is gay and he and Dad have never hit it off very well.
Then there’s Reverend Lyle, new to Holt from Denver. His wife and son are unhappy with small-town life and they never pass up a chance to remind him. (His wife was having an extramarital affair in Denver and that was one of the reasons they left.) When Reverend Lyle preaches a sermon in the Congregational Church about loving one’s neighbors and turning the other cheek, it doesn’t go over well with small-town folk, especially during wartime. (He’s only stating what the Bible says, but most people seem to think he’s siding with the enemy.) He is so disliked after this sermon, it seems there is no way he can survive attempts to have him fired or reassigned. After his unsympathetic wife leaves him and his son attempts suicide, what’s left for Reverent Lyle in the town of Holt?
Other characters include Berta May, the old lady who lives next door to Dad and Mary Lewis, raising her young granddaughter, Alice, after the girl’s mother dies; Tanya, the wife of a fired employee who Dad Lewis helps (without expecting anything in return, although sex is offered) after her husband commits suicide; Willa Johnson and her fifty-six-year-old daughter Alene, a teacher who once had an unhappy love affair with a married man that she was never quite able to get over. On a hot day the ladies (Mary Lewis and her daughter Lorraine, Willa and Alene Johnson, Berta May and her granddaughter Alice) take off all their clothes and get into the stock tank. I might have expected them to be more modest than that, especially in the company of a young girl, but it seems that woman aren’t as modest as men.
Benediction is a slice of small-town life, understated in the way of the man who wrote it. There’s nothing bombastic or larger than life here, just solid storytelling told in uncluttered language with plenty of drama (but no drama queens) just underneath the surface. It’s people living out their good-and-bad lives, forcing us to wonder—and not for the first time, either—what it’s all about.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp