Unnamed Assailants: Kent Haruf’s Benediction (Review)

I bought a used copy of Haruf’s Plainsong a couple years after it came out. My private study of all things Kansan was in its infancy and I was excited to read a major work by another Great Plains writer, but whenever I opened the book I shortly closed it again. The prose simply left me limp.

Spare prose describing the familiar world is, to me, repellent. And when applied to the culture of the plains, redundant. This distaste for ‘realism’ is one of my limitations as a reader. But realism itself, it can and has been argued, reinforces the (corrupt) status quo.

…sigh. Let me reset. Haruf is a good writer and Benediction is a moving book. An old man named Dad Lewis is dying. His wife and daughter tend to him. He rejected his gay son and regrets it but the boy is never coming back. Across the street a little girl has moved in with her grandmother. A couple other women in the town, a elderly mother and late middle aged daughter, have started buying the little girl gifts, including a bicycle. By the last, gripping chapter, the old man has died and during the disruptions caused by his memorial, the little girl goes missing. The perfect tension of that scene, of the past well and safely buried and the future imperilled, held fast in the web-bright stillness of a small Plains town, is the purpose of the book and I suspect its inspiration. Some of the other chapters feel like moving the furniture and a whole side plot involving a liberal preacher could have been deleted altogether.

The travails of the said preacher proceed like Dostoyevsky for Dummies. He’s too pure for his wife, too pure for his teenage son, and too pure by half for the descendants of the Wild West gunmen that settled the Colorado High Plains. He delivers a sermon about taking that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff from the Gospel literally and waging peace upon the Arab world and the congregation walks out. Later unnamed assailants beat him on the street.

Unnamed assailants… anything unpleasant in Benediction goes unnamed. Even the cancer that kills Dad Lewis isn’t properly named. The angry congregants who abandon the preacher only spring into existence at that every moment, each and every one unnamed. Unnamed also is everything that troubles the town, everything that robs it of its children, everything that poisons the land, everything that threatens to wipe Holt, Colorado off the map in the next twenty or thirty years, and the sordid process of settlement.

I would not have been so bothered by this had the book not ended the way it did. Exclusion is paramount to art. You can’t include everything. (Spoilers)

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.

This is the only moment in the novel where the natural and the general take focus away from the human and the specific. Suddenly we are in the realm of the eternal. These tales take on the force and the permanence of the weather itself. This is one of the highest and best tricks in literary art, like closing the circuit, completing the chord.

Yet, for me, all was discord. That last paragraph was unearned. The town of Holt, or the towns it stands in for,  has not earned the “Sunrise, sunset” treatment. It was built in haste and will soon fall alongside its fellows unless its way of life is re-imagined.

Haruf’s Holt, as seen in Benediction is not ‘real,’– where are the Mexican immigrants, the meth labs, the Pizza Huts?– nor imagined, nor re-imagined so much as regurgitated. And those upchucked ideas were rotten even in the 1950s.

And here is the thing about the kind of plain style Haruf employs: it is the best language with which to tell lies.

Now I am not calling Haruf a liar. I think he is a good writer and is probably a good man.  He’s trying to tell good stories that feel true. It’s just that what feels true about the Midwest, the West, about American rural life, generally, are lies.

In a recent article in Kirkus, Haruf describes his approach:

“The longer I’ve written about it, my attempt has been to make it appear to be every town,” he now says. “What happens there happens everywhere—pregnant teenagers, lonely old men and so on—and it became important to me to tell stories that happen every place.”

This McDonald’s hamburger mentality, then, is what precludes Haruf from telling stories that depend on the reality of the region. Too bad!

My favorite scene feels like it came from another book, a book written by a Haruf who didn’t worry about the average reader following along and just turned his considerable talent toward what simply caught his eye.

The little girl, Alice, is picnicking with the old women one afternoon. The ladies have some wine. Everyone lies down outside and takes a short nap. (Already, this is very unusual behavior.) Out of nowhere, it is decided that they will swim naked(!) in a nearby stock tank.

The three women and the girl walked out of the barn carrying the towels and the lawn chars and the leftover wine and went in through the gate and crossed the hot empty corral, going out into the pasture through the far gate, and walked along the path worn by the cattle alongside  the fence and stopped at the stock tank. There was a pad of concrete laid around it, with dirt and manure below it and mud on the low side of the tank where the tank overflowed, the mud pocked with the deep split hoofprints of cattle. The tank was brimming full. Behind it, the windmill ran water whenever the wind gusted up, the pump banged and clanked, the rod jerked up and down, then cold fresh clean water spouted out through a long pipe.

They set the lawn chairs in a line back from the tank. Alice stepped up on the concrete apron and looked in and felt the cold water. On the bottom was a bed of mud and there were strings of green moss around the edges. She could see black tadpoles squirming away into the mud. She went back to the women.

Lorraine said, Well. Then she just proceeded to take her cloths off and laid them out on a chair. She was white as cream and full breasted with blue veins in her breasts with a swath of dark hair below her stomach to match the dark hair on her head. They looked at her. She raised her arms. Oh God, what a beautiful day. She stepped toward the tank in the hot manurey dirt and stepped up onto the concrete and leaned over and cupped her hands in the water, her bare back and legs shining in the sun, and doused her face and hair and her breasts and gasped, Oh God! Dear Lord! She lifted one foot onto the rim of the tank and brushed her foot off and stepped over into the water, her body halved, all of her full-fleshed body in the bright sun, and then lowered herself into the water and cried, Goddamn! Oh, Jesus! and lay out in the water and disappeared and came up all white and shining. Jesus! Jesus! Then she stood up and turned to them. Come on, all of you, get in.

This! The animal, the vegetable, the mineral, all is here, in new, provocative configurations and the same time old as women and heat and water. I believe in this stock tank– it is so minutely and lovingly described– and I want to believe in these women, each taking her first skinny dip and lightly blaspheming her God.

I will continue to read Haruf, and gladly, for the moments his fancy gets the better of his Iowa training. But while Haruf hides behind claims of universality, Holt, Kansas loses its post office, Holt, Nebraska’s water has started to smell funny, and Holt, Ohio is so crowded with refugees and immigrants who work at the meat packing plant that it’s hard to know which of the fifty languages you’re hearing, and Holt, Texas is choking on a new round of dust storms. Maybe it’s time to name some names.

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