Kent Haruf is the author of 6 novels, the last of which was posthumously published. Haruf was 71 years old when he died, about the same age as his two protagonists in Our Souls at Night. This is how the novel opens.
And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)
Addie is a widow; Louis a widower. They live two doors apart from each other on Cedar Street in the oldest part of Holt. They know each other well enough for Louis to shovel Addie’s snow in the winter and for Addie to have been friends with Louis’ wife. Not well enough for this proposal from Addie to Louis.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.Kent Haruf
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.
Louis doesn’t know what to do with himself but he does prepare for all eventualities. He goes to the barber on Main Street for a haircut and a shave. Eats a light supper so he won’t feel heavy in bed. Trims his fingernails and toenails before heading out with his pajamas and a toothbrush in a paper bag. And so begins this luminous love story of Louis and Addie, a pair of 70 year olds holding hands in the dark.
A Sense of Place
Our Souls at Night takes place in Holt, Colorado. It is a place as dear to Haruf as Gilead is to Marilynn Robinson or Godolphin to Edith Pearlman.
Haruf’s novels are all set in this small town, Holt. The first two were fairly conventional. In the third, Plainsong, he found his own voice: profoundly American in its cadences, western American in its unexpected drollnesses and its calm, dry reticence.Ursula K. LeGuin, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf review – happiness at the end of life, The Guardian, 27 May 2015
Haruf grew up in eastern Colorado among conservative, God-fearing folk. The people of Holt seem to be cut from the same cloth. They are schoolteachers and insurance salesmen, wives who devote themselves to raising their children or to helping out their husband in the office. Holt is big enough to warrant a hospital but small enough for its residents to poke their noses into each other’s business.
Louis tries to hide his connection with Addie by sneaking in through the back door. He doesn’t want her shamed in the eyes of the townspeople. Addie won’t have it. I’m too old to care, she says. Plus, people will find out no matter what we do.
A retired baker makes a snide comment to Louis. A snotty cashier gives Addie a verbal slap across the face. Addie’s son and Louis’ daughter are equally appalled. Meanwhile, Addie and Louis attend theater in Denver, camp in the Rockies, skinny dip just outside of town. Above all, they talk.
Talking in the dark
In an odd way, Haruf reminds me of Nicholson Baker and his phenomenal novel of telephone sex. Not that Haruf stoops to anything so obvious. But the good folks of Holt have dirty minds and everyone in town assumes the worst of Addie and Louis.
A lesser writer might have honed in on the gossip, the angry buzz of unkind thoughts, the small and petty minds. Instead, Haruf focuses our attention on the tenderness of Addie and Louis’ speech. It’s not a courtship in the sense of conquest. No one is being seduced or won over. Haruf shows us two souls touching in the night.
I love it, she said. It’s better than I had hoped for. It’s a kind of mystery. I like the friendship of it. I like the time together. Being here in the dark of night. The talking. Hearing you breathe next to me if I wake up.Kent Haruf
Plain speech for plain folks. No quotation marks or paragraph breaks. Only the occasional he said, she said to mark the start of yet another conversation.
Running out of time
I finished Our Souls at Night in two sittings. The sentences are short and the chapters are, too. The compactness of the language seems appropriate for the lives Haruf depicts. He wastes no time telling us what Addie and Louis do when they’re apart unless it’s somehow relevant to their relationship: the death of a neighbor or a visit from a grandchild.
The chapters may also be short because Haruf was running out of time. He was diagnosed in early 2014 with an incurable form of lung cancer. Haruf thought he might have time for one more short story. Instead, he wrote Our Souls at Night. He wrote it in 6 months from his garden shed.
I went out every day trusting myself to be able to add to the story each day. So I essentially wrote a new short chapter of the book every day. I’ve never had that experience before. I don’t want to get too fancy about it, but it was like something else was working to help me get this done. Call it a muse or spiritual guidance, I don’t know. All I know is that the trust I had in being able to write every day was helpful.Kent Haruf in interview with John Moore, “The Complete Final Interview: Kent Haruf” in Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Dec 2014
14 April 2021 | Karen Kao