This review originally appeared in Full Stop.
Readers of Kent Haruf’s previous books will surely know what to expect from his new novel, Benediction: a work of austere realism, probably weaving together several separate but related narratives, set in rural Holt county on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. They will expect the novel to be written in a very plain, direct style, avoiding obvious “literary” ornamentation. They will further expect that the characters will be ordinary citizens of Holt county, the men tending to be rather hard-bitten and the women long-suffering, although not necessarily either unsympathetic or less believable for that. Finally, they will expect that the spare and often desolate setting of the American plains will serve as an ever-looming backdrop, which, combined with the religious overtones suggested by Haruf’s titles (“Benediction,” “Eventide,” “Plainsong”) gives the characters and their actions a kind of elemental aura that is almost Biblical in its implications.
Benediction certainly fulfills these expectations, and in fact does so powerfully enough that it prompts additional reflection on the assumptions about fiction underlying Haruf’s work, as well as the strategies Haruf favors in realizing those assumptions in his novels. Haruf has been compared to Faulkner in the way he has focused on a particular place, each novel adding to a cumulative chronicle of that place and its inhabitants, the setting also providing a distinctive regional flavor and cultural milieu. However, these similarities are ultimately superficial, since both character and setting are evoked by these two writers in quite different, even radically incommensurate, ways. Indeed, in style and in the narrative perspective he habitually employs, Haruf seems more like the anti-Faulkner.
While both Faulkner and Haruf could both plausibly be called realists, this really only illustrates that “realism” is a hopelessly elastic term that finally just signifies a broadly conceived goal — to represent something “true” about human experience — but tells us little about how any particular writer will proceed to accomplish that goal. Faulkner seldom directly set scenes or emphasizes descriptive details in a “realistic” way; rather, the realism of setting is a kind of secondary effect of Faulkner’s approach to character and, at times, plot. Furthermore, the realism of character in Faulkner comes not from behavior or appearance as observed externally but from the focus on their subjective states, the portrayal of the world as perceived from the inside. One could label Faulkner’s realism “psychological realism,” although Faulkner does not settle for the use of “free indirect” discourse in any ordinary way (which as described by someone like James Wood has become a more or less default mode of narration in much “literary fiction”) but either pursues a radical stream-of-consciousness strategy, as in the Benjy sections of The Sound and the Fury, or greatly amplifies the character’s internal perspective through his rhetorically charged language.
Kent Haruf is not a psychological realist. However much we might believe we get to “know” his characters, it is not because Haruf invites us to share their thoughts and subjective perceptions. Benediction focuses on the impending death of “Dad” Lewis and its impact on those around him, especially his wife, but we never get any deeper into Dad’s own internal processing and subjective experience of the fact he is dying than when, at the end of the first chapter, which otherwise simply narrates a brief initial scene in which Dad learns of his fatal diagnosis (from cancer) and the subsequent drive home by Dad and his wife, Mary, Dad drinks a beer on his front porch:
. . .So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.
The most that could be said of such a passage as an attempt at psychological realism is that it is a kind of summation of what’s going on in Dad’s conscious awareness of his situation, a brief inventory of the thoughts that understandably would be going through his mind at such a time. The exposition of these thoughts involves very little “deep” disclosure, and in fact helps the narrator provide additional expository “information” — Dad will be buried in “the cemetery three miles east of town.”
Although Mary perhaps suffers even more acutely through Dad’s final days than Dad himself, neither are we provided a direct depiction of her psychological pain. At the beginning of chapter two, Mary collapses due to the stress of confronting her husband’s death and attempting to care for him, but this incident comes as much of a surprise to us as it does to Dad, since again we are not given access to the inner turmoil she is clearly experiencing. Some readers might feel that the spareness of the psychological profile these characters are given is an appropriate reflection of their relative lack of self-consciousness about themselves (their spareness of ego possibly also reflective of the intimidating spareness of their physical surroundings), but it hardly seems likely that Haruf wants to suggest his characters are just not capable of sustained reflection or that their ways of thinking just aren’t worth exploring. Instead, Haruf’s preferred aesthetic strategy is simply to present his characters from the outside, as we follow what they do, what they say, and how they interact with others. To an extent, the inner lives of these characters remain something of a mystery to us, but this also seems to be an intentional effect — we must infer motive from a character’s actions and at times allow emotion to remain implicit.
Not only does Haruf hew pretty closely to the narrative surface of his stories, but he does so in a conspicuously “plain” style. As Haruf himself described the prose of Benediction in a recent interview, it includes “almost no metaphors or figurative language” because he is “trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.” Thus the narrative is characterized by passages such as this, describing the apartment of Dad’s son, Frank:
The street was dark with old tall wooden houses. One of the street lamps was broken out at the corner. They got out and Frank used his key and they climbed the stairs to the third floor, where there was a wide bare hallway with a single shared bathroom. Frank’s apartment was just one room looking out onto the dark street, with a narrow bed and a chest of drawers and a curtain hung across the corner for a closet, with an electric hot plate on a stand and a half-size refrigerator, a bare table and two chairs. A poster of the night lights of New York was taped on the wall. Opposite was a poster showing an Indian girl above a caption that said Better Red Than Dead.
What we learn from this scene about Frank’s life after leaving his parents (never to return) we learn from the “things” in his immediate environment, which the narrator merely names without rhetorical or figurative embellishment. Haruf’s linguistic parsimony, of course, is practically the antithesis of Faulkner’s immoderate, figuratively and rhetorically ornate style, making any resemblance between the two writers even more difficult to discern.
Kent Haruf is really a throwback to the “realism” that defined the original practice of 19th century realists such as William Dean Howells and the so-called “local colorists,” among the latter especially a writer such as Hamlin Garland, who in his best-known book Main-Travelled Roads and other works offered a similar regional portrayal of the plains states and the upper Midwest. Haruf has more subtlety than Garland, and is a more efficient stylist, but his fiction seems animated by the same impulse to represent the lives of “ordinary” people and the local circumstances in which they find themselves. Benediction ultimately presents a cast of characters who are all credibly human, exhibiting variable qualities both admirable and blameworthy. In most of Haruf’s books an unusual or uncommonly dramatic development brings the characters out of their quotidian reality, and their responses to such developments have led more than one reviewer to refer to some of these characters as “heroic” in affirming their sincerely-held, if simple, virtues; but this sort of easy valorization of such characters and their struggles seems to me both patronizing and inaccurate. It casually sentimentalizes both the characters and Haruf’s fictions as a whole by reducing it to an instrument of “affirmation” of the virtues his characters certainly do possess — perseverance, lack of pretension, etc. In my reading of Haruf’s novels, they set out to do what old-fashioned realism, at its best, took as its central ambition, to portray life as lived, without the kind of artificial distortions that would make it seem either better or worse than the actuality itself allows.
We might particularly be tempted to describe Dad Lewis’s story as the story of Dad’s heroic acceptance of his fate, or of Mary’s heroic endurance. However, while Dad does indeed accept his oncoming death (mostly) and Mary does indeed endure, it hardly seems necessary that we regard their actions as heroic in order to acknowledge them as facts of the narrative. The narrative itself, in concluding with the final fact of Dad’s passing, seems emphatically to avoid sentimentalizing it:
That was on a night in August. Dad Lewis died early that morning and the young girl Alice from next door got lost in the evening and then found her way home in the dark by the streetlights of town and so returned to the people who loved her.
And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.
Perhaps these images of encroaching winter make for a poetically appropriate ending to a novel centering on death (with the young Alice serving as a reminder that life continues), but their almost literal chill also makes the ending a final reinforcement of Benediction’s realism: death is a part of life, to be described with fidelity to that reality.
If Benediction does seem “authentic” as a kind of slice-of-life account of the lives of people like those living in his fictional Holt County, we might nevertheless still ask whether, 150 years after its ascension, this sort of realism retains credibility as an aesthetic strategy in fiction. If we grant that Haruf employs the conventions associated with such realism very well, what do we find in a novel like this that we wouldn’t find in the fiction of those writers on whose work it is modeled? What do we find that is surprising, that takes not just realism but fiction as a literary form in a new or surprising direction? Certainly many of Haruf’s readers do not want or expect him to surprise them in this way, assuming instead that he will continue to chronicle life in Holt County, Colorado. These readers no doubt value Haruf’s effort to “get at the thing itself,” resulting in fiction that is “true to life.”
But of course even the most earnest realism is created through artifice, although it is an artifice that tries to seem absent. Haruf might conceal his artifice especially well — through a style that pretends not to be one — but is it really any longer possible to accept the attempt at representational transparency with the innocence readers brought to it more than a century ago? Much traveling has been done down the road of literary history since Hamlin Garland ventured on it, after all.