Our Souls at Night
By Kent Haruf
179 pages, $24.00
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Kent Haruf (1943 – 2014) was an American writer whose great skill was to describe the plain ways of people who live in small places. The son of a minister, Haruf won prizes that include the Wallace Stegner Award for earlier novels such as “Eventide” and “Plainsong.”
Two years ago, Haruf wrote “Benediction,” a spare and unencumbered story of Dad Lewis, age 77, suffering from terminal cancer. Dad owned a hardware store and lived with his care-worn wife, Mary, in the fictional city of Holt, Colo.
Haruf, who knew he was very ill, died just after he finished this last novel, “Our Souls at Night.” In a New York Times piece last December, Haruf’s wife, Cathy, told the writer, William Yardley, about her lovable chiding to her husband, “I’m doing the copy editing on it right now … I said, ‘Don’t you dare die before you finish it.’ ”
Haruf did finish “Our Souls At Night.” Toward the end, and in order to immerse himself in the small make-believe-world of Holt, Haruf sat with a wool cap over his head and eyes, clattering away on a manual typewriter in his shed behind their house.
“Our Souls” is a reminder of how joyous and tortuous life can be, especially for people in their advanced years. I’m tempted to say that this is a novel more for older people to appreciate, but that would be a mistake. In fact, it’s a novel that has training wheels on it for all those who are growing older, everybody.
Picture this: Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit, just before dark on a May night, to her neighbor, Louis Waters. The two live a block apart in the oldest part of Holt. Both of their spouses have died a while back, and their kids live a distance away.
Addie and Louis have lived years alone in their own big two-story houses.
“After telling Louis that his house looks nice, Addie says,
I want to suggest something to you. (This remark is a quote, but there are no quotation marks in this book, a practice taking hold in some writing.)
Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk … I’m not talking about sex.”
Thus begins a story about how loneliness draws people together. Souls are at their most vulnerable at night, vulnerable to the dark and the exigencies of the body as their bodies get older. Nighttime is their time of greatest need; the need to converse, to hold another close if possible, and hear another’s shallow breathing in bed.
Companionship reminds us that we were made to share our happiness and sorrows if possible. “Not sex,” Addie says, “I’m talking about getting through the night.”
Louis comes by just before dark and, tentatively, he gets in bed and they hold hands. They talk about their lives, their kids, their disappointments, perhaps a lost love or lust. They fall asleep.
This is pretty much what happens, I don’t want to say more, in “Our Souls at Night.”
Basically, Louis and Addie have an innocent relationship that starts the whole town talking. Their children complain, Holly to Louis; Gene to Addie. Gene and his wife are separating. And Gene brings his 6-year-old Jamie to Addie to stay through the summer while he looks for a new job. Will this complicate Addie and Louis’ nightly arrangement, their “conversations?”
Addie’s explanation for wanting some solace and warmth is simple: “Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings.”
Addie is remembering the less-than-lovely relationship she had with her husband, Carl, for years before he died. Earlier, he was soured by the death of their young daughter Connie, hit by a car right in front of their house. He never recovered his capacity to relate, little that he had to begin with.
For that matter, Louis still feels guilty about a two-week affair he had 43 years ago with a teacher named Tamara, at the high school where he taught. He tells this to Addie, noting that it affected his wife, Diane. She forgave him, but there was always afterward a restraint between them. Diane contracted cancer a few years back, experienced terrible pain and couldn’t wait until she died.
Louis reflects, when asked by Addie if he’s afraid of death.
“Not like I was. I’ve come to believe in some kind of afterlife. A return to our true selves, a spirit self. We’re just in this physical body until we go back to spirit.
I don’t know if I believe that, Addie says.”
So, neighbors, life doesn’t get easier for those who grow old. Consider the alternative: Death is something to look forward to with fear or with gladness, depending upon our perspective.
The question is, “How will these new friends of ours, Addie and Louis, cope, when Eugene doesn’t permit his mother to see Louis anymore? In fact, he moves her to Denver in a home where she can do ... what?”
Is that all there is? Read it and …
Michael D. Langan is a longtime reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.