Friday, June 5, 2015

Kent Haruf’s ‘Our Souls at Night’ is a tender, bittersweet story of happiness found late in life

Photo by Michael Lionstar

Our Souls at Night begins:

And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

Addie is a widow; Louis is a widower. They are both in their seventies and have lived in the same neighborhood in small town Holt, Colorado for decades. Addie has come to ask a question:

I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?

I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too
long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

It’s not sex she’s after:

I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

From awkward beginnings, they grow closer. She tells him about the death of her young daughter and the effect it had on her marriage and on her husband’s treatment of their son. He tells her about the affair that almost destroyed his marriage and about his wife’s slow, terrible death from cancer. They share the disappointments they had in their marriages and their professional lives. “Life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected,” Louis says.

But they are happy with each other:

…I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitements. And not all dried up in body and spirit.

Addie’s son, a controlling, overprotective husband and father, asks to send his own young son, Jamie, to stay with her for the summer. The boy’s mother has moved out and he is distraught over her leaving and what now feels like his father’s abandonment as well. He has nightmares every night and comes in tears into Addie’s room for comfort. Gradually, tenderly, with Louis’ help, Addie helps the boy to settle down and Louis resumes his nights with Addie. They get a dog for Jamie, take him on a camping trip, play catch – the effort to help Jamie heal brings them closer together and strengthens their ties to each other.

But there are still hurdles. As Ursula K. LeGuin recently wrote:

So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not, however, in the way we might expect, but on complex terms, involving quite a few of the other citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom. Like freedom, also, it’s never secure; it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (The Guardian 5/27/15),

It hasn’t taken long for the neighbors – and then the whole small town – to figure out what’s happening with Addie and Louis. There is initial disapproval in some quarters but they refuse to be cowed by it. It is their own children who are most opposed.

Louis’ daughter (with whom he has a somewhat distant relationship) is notified of “what’s going on” by two of her old friends. She comes to town to tell him how embarrassing his behavior is and “What would Mom say?”

But the biggest impediment is Addie’s son, Gene. He storms in to retrieve his son, accuses Louis of being after Addie’s money, and orders him to stay away from the boy. “You’re not even ashamed of yourselves….People your age meeting in the dark like you do,” he rages. As his anger increases, he gives Addie the choice of either giving up Louis or giving up any contact with her grandson. Either choice would be wrenching but she is forced to make one.

Kent Haruf’s language throughout this novel is quiet, unadorned, lovely. It never descends into sentimentality. As in his previous novels, his picture of small town life is always credible in every detail and its inhabitants familiar to anyone who has lived it.

Haruf wrote Our Souls at Night, the last of his six novels, while he was dying from interstitial lung disease. He knew how sick he was and was determined to finish it. He died on November 13, 2014 at his Colorado home and the novel was published posthumously last month.

His obituary in The New York Times (12/2/14) described his unusual writing method:

Kent Haruf pulled a wool cap over his eyes when he sat down at his manual typewriter each morning so he could “write blind,” fully immersing himself in the fictitious small town in eastern Colorado where he set a series of quiet, acclaimed novels, including “Plainsong,” a 1999 best seller. Mr. Haruf often wrote a chapter a day, most recently in a prefabricated shed in the backyard of his home in Salida, Colo., where he died on Sunday at 71.

Punctuation, capitalization, paragraphs — they waited for the second draft. The first draft usually came quickly, a stream of imagery and dialogue that ran to the margins, single-spaced.

After Mr. Haruf finished his first drafts, usually well before lunch, he would pull back his cap and take a look.

“He only got off home row a couple of times and typed gobbledygook,” his wife, to whom the book is dedicated, recalled. “That’s not bad for all those years.”

In addition to Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf was the author of five other novels: Benediction, Eventide, Plainsong, The Tie that Binds, and Where You Once Belonged. He received a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountain & Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. He was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the New Yorker Book Award.

1 comment:

  1. Being the same age as Mr. Karuf I believe I will identify with the loneliness in Our Souls at Night. Sounds like another great read.