- - Thursday, May 28, 2015




By Kent Haruf

Alfred A. Knopf, $24, 192 pages

Kent Haruf died at the end of last year, leaving behind one final tale. It’s set, like all his previous novels, in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Titled “Our Souls at Night” and just published, it will thrill aficionados of his earlier books and hook readers new to his work with simple yet concentrated language that gorgeously evokes the lives of its central characters Addie Moore and Louis Waters.

Addie and Louis are widowed septuagenarians, living what are often called “quiet lives” in houses a couple of blocks apart. They are acquaintances rather than friends until one day Addie goes to Louis with a request, “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” She explains that she’s lonely and thinks he is, too, and that sleeping together and talking would be pleasant for them both. “I’m not talking about sex . I’m taking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed companionably.”

So begins a relationship whose blossoming is delicately recorded in pellucid language that casts its glow over ordinary objects and daily events, and somehow miraculously captures the bud and bloom of scarcely expressible feelings. That first night, for example, Louis‘ preparations are mundane, but their patient description suggests his anxiety: “He ate a light supper, just a sandwich and a glass of milk, he didn’t want to feel heavy and laden in her bed, and then took a long hot shower and scrubbed himself thoroughly. He trimmed his fingernails and toenails and at dark went out the back door and walked up the back alley carrying a paper sack with his pajamas and toothbrush inside.”

Similar passages of serious, almost plodding, description cover the trips Louis and Addie begin to take: to a cafe for lunch, to a softball game with a neighbor, then with Addie’s grandson Jamie to a campsite by a river. He has been sent to stay with Addie because his parents’ marriage is coming apart. He’s nervous without his mother, but Addie and Louis nurture him by reading stories, teaching him to use a catcher’s mitt, even buying him a dog. Sorrows are being soothed; lives are being built — and not just Jamie’s.

In their nighttime conversations Louis and Addie tell each other how they met their spouses, where they lived, what they worked at and enjoyed. It’s clear that both have hard events in their past — traumatic in Addie’s case — but now life is becoming more joyous for both of them. The short sentences stretch into lyrical evocation as their lives expand: “They drove up the highway through the Arkansas River canyon, the beautiful fast water, steep red jagged cliffs on each side. There were Rocky Mountain sheep along the road, all ewes with short sharp horns. The clear icy water with brook trout holed up in the hollows below the rocks. There were tall fir trees and big ponderosas and aspens along the creek.”

Such writing can seem almost childlike in its simplicity, but Kent Haruf is never casual. He deftly shapes his text so that the reader sees epiphanies in everyday occurrences. Similarly, his choice of ordinary or even banal incidents such as Jamie’s reluctance to use the stinky campsite bathroom or Addie grocery shopping with an elderly neighbor suggests the texture of lives as no dramatic incident or lush description ever could.

Clearly, then, “Our Souls At Night” celebrates the possibilities of change and growth and happiness even late in life and even after serious sorrows have struck. Even more interestingly, the somewhat surprising ending lets readers see patterns — and ideas about patterns — that are half-hidden in the early expository chapters and even in the busier more eventful central sections. The ending also raises matters of family obligation and the sacrifices people make that may lead to happiness but equally to hidden sorrow or even anger. But always the touch is light, the language understated; it’s the vision that is sharp. Reading this book is a revelation of how much can be conveyed using only the simplest of words, the most elementary of plots and incidents.

“Our Souls at Night” is a novella rather than a novel, and it has the rather disturbing jewel-like clarity typical of the best novellas. Physically, it is a small book, and its size and compactness seem perfect because it makes it easy to hold and carry, all the better to keep the story of Addie and Louis close to you.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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