Monday, August 17, 2015

The last Kent Haruf novel: Our Souls at Night

In last Sunday's New York Times book review, an author, when asked if he remembered what he read, said that he actually remembered where he read books.  I realize that I have similar memories burned into my brain. Just as surely as I can remember where I was when I heard certain songs for the first time ("I've Never Been to Spain," "Signs," "Ode to Billy Joe"), I can remember where I was when I read certain books, even passages in those books.

 I first discovered Kent Haruf and his town of Holt when I was listening to the audiobook of Eventide, unaware that it was actually a sequel to Plainsong. I was riding the back roads through Alexander County, just past the one spot where I always lose cell phone reception.  I recall thinking this was a particularly subtle little book, when something occurred in the story that took me completely by surprise. I was riding down the road sobbing.  And I'm not a crier.

No, Haruf is no Nicholas Sparks, intentionally eliciting tears from readers; he just creates ordinary characters that readers can't help caring about. I went back and read Plainsong, in which the two brothers from Eventide took in a pregnant high school girl at the request of the girl's English teacher.

Since then, I have gone on to read Benediction, also set in Holt, with a small reference to the events of the other two novels, the way neighbors might recall events in town affecting people they knew, though not well.

When Haruf died recently, I was disappointed to think that his writing career had ended with his life.  What a surprise, then, to discover one more slim book, Our Souls at Night.  This novel opens with a seventy-year-old widow taking a chance and visiting a neighboring widower with an odd proposal: that he come and sleep with her at night--and talk.  Though the two have no plans for a sexual relationship, the people of Holt soon take notice of Louis's early morning walks home from Addie's house.  Their children get wind of their unusual relationship, especially when Addie's son asks his mother to take care of his young son for awhile during the summer after the boy's mother leaves.

At the core of the story are two lonely people who've lived ordinary, if imperfect lives, but who still need the most basic human contact--talk.  The deep friendship that develops, taking in the young boy and the dog they get him, faces challenges primarily from the outside.

As an aside, I'll confess that I've spent much of the summer working my way through James Michener's novel The Source. Weighing in at more than 1600 pages, the book is interesting, informative, but dense.  I tried first to read the mass market paperback on my shelf, but I honestly couldn't read the print, so I downloaded the book. As I read, I'll see at the bottom of the page "79 pages remaining in the chapter."  The chapter!

By contrast, Haruf novel is only 179 pages long, and some chapters are only a couple of pages long. It's an easy day's read. In one whimsical chapter, the characters are discussing the novels someone has written and set in Holt, clear references to Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction. They discuss the improbability of the plots--and the possibility of someone writing a book about them. I'm so glad someone did. I wish he'd had time to write a few more.

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