KENT HARUF'S HOLT, Colorado will never be mistaken for Yoknapatawpha or Macondo, not having the gothic cobwebbed corners of the one nor the colorful magical surprises of the other, but over the course of five novels it has become a recognizable literary terrain. The people of Holt are taciturn, hard-working, hard to impress, reluctant to voice their own complaints and not particularly patient in listening to yours. They keep expectations low. No one gets something for nothing--that notion may fly in Denver, but not out here, thanks very much.
The Holt mood lightened a bit with Plainsong. (You can tell a hard-core Harufian by his or her relish for the first two novels, the nearly comfortless The Tie that Binds and Where You Once Belonged.) In Plainsong, there was the possibility that things might work out, or kinda sorta work out, at least temporarily, as in this passage of dialogue (Haruf eschews quotation marks) from Benediction:
All life is moving through some kind of unhappiness, isn't it.
I don't know. I didn't used to think so.
But there's some good, too, Willa said. I insist on that.
There are brief moments, Alene said. This is one of them.
They looked at Lyle sitting quietly, his swollen face shining in the sun coming in the window.
Lyle is the Rev. Rob Lyle, a minister with a shaky family situation who has been exiled to Holt for being too outspoken in the pulpit; he continues to be outspoken in Holt, preaching a sermon against the Iraq war, gets beaten up for it (hence the swollen face), and his family comes altogether unglued. Alene is a teacher who had to retire early because an affair with a married man was discovered; she has moved back home with her long-widowed mother, Willa. Both have taken an interest in eight-year-old Alice, whose mother has recently died of breast cancer and who now lives in Holt with her grandmother, Berta May.
Berta May lives next door to the Lewises, who are also elderly; "Dad" Lewis is dying of cancer, and the arc of his last summer gives the novel, which hardly has a main character as such, its spine. His daughter Lorraine has returned to Holt to help her parents, temporarily leaving a fairly useless and unappealing husband in Denver to fend for his sorry self (their daughter would now be in her early 30s, but she died in a car accident as a high school student). Dad's thoughts revolve more around his son, though--Frank, who is gay, and who left home under a cloud decades ago and has not been heard from in many years.
Even with all this pain--and there is more that I did not get around to--Benediction somehow lives up to the fluffy, sunlit cumulus cloud on its cover. As its liturgical title suggests, there is enough grace circulating to somehow get us by.
Dad Lewis, as he dies, is visited by (or hallucinates) Frank, his parents, the widow of an employee who committed suicide after Dad caught him stealing, and others whom he may have wronged, and seems to be honestly examining his own conscience; he gets to tell his wife and daughter that he loved them, however little he got around to saying so. Rev. Lyle's son almost commits suicide, but hesitates, and is saved; little Alice is lost, then found.
Most remarkably, in chapter 29 there is a kind of baptism, as Lorraine, Willa, Alene, and Alice take the opportunity one baking hot afternoon to skinny-dip in a cattle pond. You have to take your blessedness where you can find it, in Holt or elsewhere, and the joy of these three women and one girl as their bodies hit the thrilling cold of the water makes for one of the great scenes in recent American fiction.