Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

A few months before Kent Haruf died on Nov. 30, 2014, from interstitial lung disease at age 71, his second wife, Cathy, told him, “Don’t you dare die before you finish it.” Never one to go back on his word, Haruf completed his sixth and final novel last summer.

As in the rest of Haruf’s body of work, including his understated yet haunting loose trilogy — Plainsong, which was a National Book Award finalist in 1999; Eventide (2004); and Benediction (2013) — the fittingly titled Our Souls at Night takes place in Holt, a fictional hardscrabble town nestled in the High Plains of Colorado. Though there are offhand references to past characters like the old unmarried McPheron brothers, none of them take center stage here. Instead, what we find is the tight arch of a love story between two widowed septuagenarian neighbors hoping to combat the lonely ache of aging.

Lest you get ahead of yourselves, it isn’t what you think. Addie Moore does proposition Louis Waters, but she’s after companionship, not sex. “I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk,” she asks him. When Louis appears on her doorstep later evening — freshly showered and shaved and toting his pajamas and toothpaste in a rumpled brown paper bag — that is just what the virtual strangers do. They talk. Underneath the covers.

Like any new rendezvous between a man and woman, the friendship is plagued by insecurities at the outset. His paunch. Her sagging breasts. Their jitters about sharing a deeply personal space with an unfamiliar partner. Whether it will last. But the more the two while away nights together, the faster the awkwardness recedes. And in the whispering hours stretching from gloaming until dawn, Addie and Louis look forward to and come to depend on the ritual of exploring the hidden secrets of each other’s lives. Louis’ affair that nearly tore his marriage apart. The death of Addie’s daughter that drove a wedge in hers. Their mutual dissatisfaction with their chosen professions. “Life hasn’t turned out right for either of us, not the way we expected,” Louis tells her.

Readers familiar with the Haruf canon know that nothing happens in Holt without everyone in the town noticing — and passing judgment. Just as 17-year-old Victoria Roubideaux was ridiculed for her unplanned pregnancy in Plainsong and Eventide, so, too, are Addie and Louis vilified by some for their unorthodox coupling. Two of their loudest detractors turn out to be Louis’ college-age daughter, who — typical of the me-centric young and immature — finds their relationship “embarrassing,” and Addie’s unlikable son Gene, who brands Louis a gold-digger and later demands an end to the whole affair.

“You’re not even ashamed of yourselves. … People your age meeting in the dark like you do,” Gene carps toward the end of the novel. It’s an interesting choice — as if Haruf wants to underscore the taboo of being wrinkled and intimate in our youth-centric culture while driving home the idea that loved ones can often surprise us by becoming our harshest critics.

Similar to two unmoored souls entangled in a star-crossed romance, Addie and Louis stand defiant in the face of others’ disapproval. At least, they put forth a valiant effort until time and place interfere. And they do their best to erect something pure and meaningful out of the wreckage of previous disappointments. Yes, who among us ever gets everything we want in life, the novel asks. As Haruf’s stories so often remind us, loss and longing, despair and hope are such dogged bedfellows.

Our Souls at Night reads more like a novella than it does a novel, with short, spare chapters populated by Haruf’s signature unadorned prose. Yet despite its slim girth and familiar themes, Haruf’s last contribution to the literary world is perhaps his most telling and powerful. Not only does it shed light on what might have been on Haruf’s mind as his life wound irrevocably down, but it also reflects a phenomenon most of us are destined to face — getting old. Being seen as out of touch, irrelevant, unworthy. Feeling scared, misunderstood and alone.

There’s a character in Benediction named Rob Lyle. He’s a preacher struggling with his faith. During one of his nightly walks around town, he’s nearly arrested for peeping into his neighbors’ windows. The cop asks Lyle what he expects to gain from such voyeuristic behavior. What is he looking for? Lyle replies simply, “These ordinary lives. Passing without their knowing it. I’d hoped to recapture something … the precious ordinary.”

Perhaps this was Kent Haruf’s motivation too. Since his first novel at 41, he has earned an indelible reputation as the unmatched chronicler of America’s heartland. And with Our Souls at Night, the final chapter comes to a memorable close.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 28, 2015)

%d bloggers like this: