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Originally published Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:27 AM

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Kent Haruf’s ‘Benediction’: last days of a small-town life

Kent Haruf’s new novel “Benediction,” set in the same small Colorado town as his books “Plainsong” and “Eventide,” is an account of an ordinary man coming to terms with the fact of his mortality.

Special to The Seattle Times

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by Kent Haruf

Knopf, 272 pp., $25.95

Sometimes a long, full life can be represented in a much smaller span of time — for example, in the few months between diagnosis and death. In “Benediction,” the absorbing new novel by Kent Haruf, a seemingly ordinary man with the unlikely name of Dad Lewis learns on page one that he has one summer left.

Sitting on the porch of the house where he and his wife have lived for over half a century, he ponders a future as sure as the turning of the seasons: “Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.”

But the evocative story that follows tells us otherwise. Far from wiping out all traces of his existence, his advancing disease confirms how deeply he has influenced the world, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

His world is largely confined to Holt, the small Colorado town that was also the setting for Haruf’s novels “Plainsong” and “Eventide,” which seems to have escaped most of the decay that afflicts so many other such places.

On his last visit there, Dad sees his store in a detail that the years of habit had obscured, and Haruf’s spare prose limns both the place and the dying man: “The store was two old brick buildings side by side with high false fronts ... The wide front doors propped open on the hot Sunday morning. The new lawn mowers and garden tillers wheeled out on the sidewalk with chains run through them to keep anybody from walking off with them.” We hear the matter-of-fact musings of a matter-of-fact man.

Each of the many nuanced, deftly portrayed characters revolves around Dad Lewis. We never doubt that they have lives of their own, but for these few months they are planets that circle his fading star.

His wife, Mary, collapses with the anxiety and physical exertion of caring for him. Their daughter Lorraine, who has her own life in Denver, returns to help but trails the tangled threads of her own complicated life.

In the background is their estranged son, Dad’s own estranged parents, the men who work for him at his hardware store, a preacher whose radical views have earned him exile to this rural outpost, and neighbors who face their own mortality as Dad’s days tick away.

“In the night he lay awake next to Mary in the downstairs bedroom unable to sleep, remembering everything, taking all of his years into account.” Indeed, the blessing implied by the title, “Benediction,” is in part this precious time of accounting.

Years ago an employee he had fired for theft committed suicide, and without telling Mary or anyone else Dad supported the man’s widow and two children until they built a new life for themselves. Guilt? Some, maybe, but not only that. It is leavened with basic human charity toward people whose lives he touched.

It’s as if without resorting to theology Dad lives the tenets of Christianity. Lyle, that demoted preacher who insists on taking Christ’s teachings literally, alienates his new congregation by suggesting that America might better say to its enemies: “We are going to give willingly and generously to you ... We have set out hearts on it. We will treat you like brothers and sisters.” Dad doesn’t consciously follow Lyle’s suggestion; he merely does what his heart tells him to do.

Still, the accounting isn’t always easy. Haruf doesn’t offer us any facile reconciliations. The blessings in “Benediction” are no more easily won than the saintliness that Lyle advocates in his sermon on forgiveness. For that very reason they are all the more believable and all the more unforgettable.

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