The Precious Ordinary: A Review of Kent Haruf’s novel Benediction

When I teach Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, my students are often befuddled by the play’s simplicity. Nothing, they tell me, really happens in Grover’s Corners. People are born, get married, and die. 

Well, I say in my most professorial voice, they also have breakfast, eat lunch, go to school, kiss, drink beer, sing in the choir, and sleep late whenever possible. Those are pretty easy to forget, though.

Like the people in Grover’s Corners, I point out, it’s easy to read past the simple seeking the complex. Too many people, Wilder argues, spend their lives looking for the extra-ordinary event, expecting magic and excitement. We forget, as his characters remind us, that the bulk of our existence is dominated by the average and everyday. 

How many hours are in a week? A year? Twenty years? I ask.

How many hours of those hours are exciting and magical?

It’s often a disconcerting answer for 18 year old students when they realize they will spend more of their lives eating breakfast on Monday mornings than experiencing life-changing events. And you should see their faces when I ask them how many hours they spend in the bathroom.

We must, Wilder seems to propose, remember to appreciate the ordinary moments. What makes Wilder’s play such a fine work of art, though, is his ability to craft a work whose form supports and mirrors its function. The stage is stripped bare, the characters simple. The dialogue reflects the core values of the play.

It is a mistake, though, to assume Wilder is imploring us to adopt a kind of carpe diem philosophy. Appreciating and valuing the ordinary is different from seizing the day. Everyday life, Grover’s Corners shows us, isn’t great and wonderful. But we must live all of our days, not just the fun ones.

In many ways, American writer Kent Haruf carries on Wilder’s literary tradition. His novels, all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, reflect the flat lands of eastern Colorado. The characters embody the cold, dry plains of an American mid-west that consistently sees itself outside the mainstream of cultural change. His language is sparse, direct, and driven by narrative necessity. We might encounter philosophical moments in Haruf’s novels, but we rarely find philosophical characters. The narratives of these character’s lives are built in the concrete particulars of their actions. 

His novels aren’t driven by politics or complex, self-reflective characters searching for truth in troubling times. Like Wilder, Haruf focuses on story and character, allowing us to witness the every day, ordinary, simple lives of the men and women who people his novels.

Benediction (2013) begins as Dad Lewis and his longtime wife Mary learn he has cancer. The opening chapter ends with Dad telling his wife he “might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. . . . If I can get it around here.” His follows this dry humor with the simple observation that “he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of the 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.”

It’s a powerful opening that holds throughout the novel as we witness Dad Lewis’ final days. His wife Mary and his daughter Lorraine, on leave from her job in Denver, help ease his passing. There is an emphasis on Dad’s failing bodily functions and his wife’s willingness to help him maintain some semblance of dignity. As the days pass, we learn about Dad’s life via his visitors, flashbacks, other characters in the town. Intermingled with Dad’s story, we read about Berta May and her granddaughter, Reverend Rob Lyle and his family, and Willa and Alene. Everyone, Haruf shows us, has a story and these lives are a part of the tapestry of daily life in Holt.

No one, though, is perfect. Reverend Lyle’s family is slowly falling apart and his sermon about faith and forgiveness in a time of war costs him his congregation and his family. Alice lives with Berta May after her mother dies; Alene has moved in with her mother after teaching elementary school and having a long-time affair with a married man.

And we learn that Dad Lewis and Mary have a homosexual son who has been effectively banished by intolerance and ignorance. Franklin Lewis looms large as an absent presence throughout the narrative. He visits Dad’s hallucinatory memories. Dad admits, at the end and too late, his ignorance and he realizes what he lost.

At the same time, though, Haruf reminds us such deathbed conversions aren’t so simple and we have to be careful judging people too harshly. Dad Lewis’ life was one filled with success, hard work, and he has “come a long way” from his hardscrabble childhood on a Kansas farm. He abandoned his son, but we also know he saved other lives. Life, we realize reading the novel, isn’t a simple ledger where we subtract the negatives from the positives and hope we come out with more checks than minuses. Throughout the novel, in fact, we recognize in the simple daily lives of the characters that the men and women here are simply trying to live day to day.

There is no doubt there is pain in Haruf’s world. Dad Lewis’s son abandons the family after being bullied and rejected, Rob Lyle is attacked one night and his son attempts suicide. Alene and Lorraine live, in many ways, lives of quiet desperation wondering why they can’t find the same loving companionship their parents had.

Like Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, though, Dad Lewis and others are too often missing something. Late in the novel, Rob Lyle is wondering the streets late at night. He “stood in front of houses  . . . watching people. The little drama, the routine moments.” He goes out that night hoping, he tells a local policeman who stops to question him, to “recapture something.” He thought he would see “people being hurtful.” Instead, he finds “the sweet kindness of one person to another. Just time passing on a summer’s night.”

There are no grand epiphanies for Haruf’s characters. His novels end quietly, venturing slowly toward the closing pages. As readers, we enter the novel searching, perhaps, for what’s “behind the curtains,” but we find instead “the precious ordinary.” At the end of the day, and the end of the novel, the “days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees.” Dad Lewis was buried. Life goes one.

And that ordinariness, that simplicity, Haruf seems to say, is the greatest blessing and, perhaps, the only benediction we need.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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