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I like irony. Irony is funny. I’m a fan of David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Onion. I enjoy darkly humorous books, and I’m not opposed to reading novels in which the main character is a terrible human being. Still, I recognize that there’s a self-protective safety involved in remaining on the outside, looking in and (often) laughing at something. There’s a certain amount of vulnerability required to express deep emotion about a person or a principle or idea—a vulnerability that is necessary for both the author and reader.
Irony’s opposite, sincerity, conjures images a la “Little House on the Prairie,” but I’d like to suggest other types of novels I would describe as sincere—those that not only hold a mirror to, but also engage in the Everyday. I became a fan of author Kent Haruf’s after reading his 1999 novel Plainsong. Set in Holt, an invented rural community in the eastern Colorado grasslands, Plainsong explores the lives of the town’s residents—their histories, struggles, loves, and disappointments. Writing in a spare, yet evocative and poetic language that mirrors the vastness of this landscape, Haruf creates an unsentimental portrait of the contemporary rural West.
In his most recent novel, Benediction, Haruf returns to Holt, a place that feels as real as any geography to me. Like Plainsong, the novel is told from multiple points of view, but the heart of Benediction is “Dad” Lewis, the owner of the town’s hardware store. Facing a terminal diagnosis, he attempts put his affairs in order and live out his days in the home he shares with his beloved wife, Mary. Their daughter Lorraine returns home from Denver to care for him, but the absence of their son Frank is a sadness that pervades the house.
In alternating chapters, we get to know a host of characters for whom loss is a uniting thread. There is Rev. Lyle, the new minister of the Community Church who has been sent from Denver for some unknown and unstated infractions. Across the street are Willa and Alene, mother and daughter living together after Alene believes she’s lost her opportunity for love. There is also Berta May who has taken in her orphaned granddaughter, Alice.
Despite the loss at the core of the novel, there are moments of simple beauty—summer afternoons that end with an impromptu dip in the drinking trough, front porch picnics, first bicycles, forgiveness, and grace. These moments are the benedictions—the blessings in a world that is all too terrible and wonderful for words. Haruf has earned a place alongside writers such as Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, and Annie Proulx for his deft blend of starkness and lyricism and his rendering of characters who are so vivid, complex, and authentic.