Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
KENT HARUF DIED IN November at age 71; he achieved what most writers hope to, but nearly none will: he wrote beautiful, engaging, readable literary novels. Though he never realized the copious output or mass audience of the genre types, he was far superior a writer. In terms of the contemporary novel, very few could call him a peer; the short list might include Cormac McCarthy and Alice Munro. Among Peace Corps alumni literary writers, Haruf was arguably our best. His passing was noted widely in literary circles and the national press, and his achievements were commended by Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, where Haruf set his books.
Haruf’s short novel, Our Souls at Night, releasing posthumously in May, is a fitting coda to his oeuvre, which includes the novels Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction. Like those novels, Our Souls at Night is set in the fictional east Colorado town of Holt, which was Haruf’s “postage stamp” of fictional territory, to quote his literary antecedent, William Faulkner.
Our Souls at Night is immediately recognizable as a Haruf novel; its language is terse and simple, it gets to its storytelling point without any wasted breath, the conflict begins on the first page. An elderly widower, Louis, is paid a visit by his widowed neighbor, Addie; now that they are both old and alone, Addie would like to know if Louis wouldn’t mind coming over to occasionally spend the night in bed with her. What transpires is a quiet and moving novel — a Kent Haruf novel — about people we know and call neighbors breaking social norms to get to know one another better and perhaps find love.
Though this, Haruf’s last missive, is slender at just under 200 pages, Our Souls at Night stands with his masterpiece, Plainsong, in terms of both quality and emotional depth. In that novel, two aging bachelor farmers take in a pregnant teenage girl and find a profound familial love; here, Louis’s and Addie’s very late-in-life affair doesn’t smolder so much as it affects. Haruf is frank on every page about the actual tolls of aging on the body and the heart. Most of what the couple does in bed when Louis sneaks over at night to avoid the prying eyes and judgments of his Holt neighbors is talk; their conversations ultimately turn to their deceased spouses and the ways in which they had hurt them, and been hurt by them. For Louis, there was an affair that his wife somehow found the strength to forgive. Addie suffered decades through a loveless marriage for the sake of her son, Gene, who has turned out to be less than grateful in his own bitter adulthood.
Haruf’s dialogue is rendered in plain speak, his settings and situations free of frills or adornment. He always understands that the truth of life as we live it is enough to carry a story. In spending their nights together outside the eyes of Holt and with no greater plan for themselves as a couple, Addie and Louis are able to talk frankly about their lives. One night, Addie asks Louis about the affair the whole town knew he once had:
Addie said, Tell me about the other woman.
Who do you mean?
The one you had an affair with.
You know about that?
What follows is an unburdening, and an analysis. Louis is able to recognize that he loved both his wife and his mistress, and Addie allows him that. More than that, though, and what makes Our Souls at Night so true and sorrowful, is that Louis, with Addie listening, is able to think through what really happened and reach a final conclusion: his affair left him and the women with little more than pain. Addie asks him of the mistress he ultimately abandoned, “Where is she now?”
“I don’t know where she is,” Louis tells her. “She and her husband never got back together. So there was that too. I don’t like to think about my part in that.”
Louis and Addie hold hands through these late night conversations; the novel achieves an intense and private intimacy with nearly no physicality between the two lovers at all. This is a novel about old people, people whose cohort is mostly gone, friends and spouses dead, others lost to Alzheimer’s and dementia. In that way, Our Souls at Night is the most contemporary of American novels as much of our population is now confronting these issues.
Later in the novel — as he did in Plainsong — Haruf introduces a younger character the two leads must care for; Addie’s angry son Gene drops off his young son Jaime at his mother’s door. Over the course of a summer, the boy takes to Louis, the couple buys him a dog, and much of the middle of the book is preoccupied with domestic scenes; two elderly people caring for a young, abandoned child who needs them.
Happiness is fleeting in Haruf novels; Louis and Addie will lose theirs here. The younger generations are as lost in the back and forth of life as these two once were; when their affair is uncovered by their adult children, Louis and Addie are confronted with choices that let us know aging strips us of more than our bodies, our friends, our minds; it also takes from us whatever power we once thought we had.
Haruf’s little town of Holt, as always, can be extrapolated anywhere; Addie and Louis could have just as easily wandered together through Central Park as they finally do down Holt’s gossipy Main Street. Holt is at once a metaphor for America, and place wholly realized by Haruf’s meticulous imagination and love for it.
Simply put, Kent Haruf wrote novels about us and for us wherever we might be; Our Souls at Night is among his best. One hopes that wherever he might be, the author ultimately had some happiness of his own, knowing his work was important and well-met, and that we saw what he did, and that he did it so plainly, and so well.
Fare thee well, Kent. (1943–2014)
Reviewer Tony D’Souza lives in Florida.