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Blessings in disguise: Salida author Kent Haruf crafts a mighty Benediction



Dad Lewis is going to die before the summer is out.

That much is certain, given how Salida novelist Kent Haruf begins his latest, Benediction. Dad Lewis — familiar to readers of Haruf's previous work as the proprietor of the hardware store in Colorado's Holt County — is the central figure around whom his most recent novel revolves.

"When my first book was published in '84, I didn't have it in mind to create an entire community," says Haruf, now at 70, an award-winning author of five novels all set in a fictional county of his native state. "I did want to claim northeastern Colorado as my literary territory. I had grown up there, and I had some grandiose idea that I'd claim it as my territory."

It's an area, mostly rural, that still relies on ranching and dry-land farming. The characters in Haruf's oeuvre are strong-minded survivor-types with a streak of compassion and a drive toward community, and those qualities, he says, aren't solely the purview of one section of Colorado.

"The longer I've written, the more I've come to think of that town and that county as very much like any small town anywhere — or any town of any size, anywhere," Haruf says. "It's not just in small towns that teenage girls get pregnant, or old men die."

Plot vs. character

Haruf's been decorated for his work; 1999's New York Times bestselling Plainsong took the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and was a National Book Award finalist in fiction. But to hear him tell it, he's almost more a passenger than a driver in the writing process.

"My books are character-driven, not plot-driven," he says, "so it's not a complete picture of the community — that would be sociology — but I go where the characters lead."

That doesn't mean the characters take over the story or take on a life of their own, he notes. Instead, the characters come first, and the story proceeds organically from their nature.

"I take a character, and think about them, maybe even brood about them," Haruf says. "Characters always have problems, and you want to get those problems stated early in the book. Whatever they do in response to the problem, whatever actions they take, that is the story."

In Benediction, set in 2003, "Dad and Mary Lewis find out right away that he's got cancer and he's going to die soon, and that's the first problem," Haruf says. "Then all the people around them bring in their own problems."

Some of those problems are constant and burdensome — the ache of unfulfilled dreams, for instance. Others are sudden and profound, as is the case with the town's new pastor, who takes an unpopular if thoroughly Christian approach to the Iraq war that precipitates a walkout during the church service.

Love me, love me not

Some of Haruf's characters are more likable than others, and a few readers have found Dad Lewis to be less likable than they expect from a protagonist. He's a rather rough fellow, and along with his unfinished business of dying, he's suffering regret for having rejected his gay son, Frank, years ago. No one in his family even knows how to find Frank to tell him that Dad is soon to be gone.

In fact, a young relative of Haruf's read a draft of the novel and told him "she didn't like Dad at all."

"This book requires a mature reader, who can understand that Dad is not despicable," says Haruf. "He's made some bad decisions, and he wishes he could go back and do some things differently."

It takes, Haruf suspects, a certain amount of life experience to understand fully how a basically decent person could make such a horrible mistake as abandoning his own child.

"It's not realistic to have a man of that generation accept homosexuality immediately," he says. "There may have been a few men of that generation who could do that — there were a few, but they were very few. So it made sense for Dad to react as he did, and of course, over time, to recognize what he's lost there."

And Dad's not the only character with regrets. His daughter still mourns for her dead child; a neighbor pines for the marriage and family she never had; and Reverend Lyle is feverishly trying to avoid any more sins of omission.

This leads, Haruf agrees, to a novel that will have great appeal for people "who have lived life, and so understand that people make decisions and choices that they later come to regret."

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