Friday, April 05, 2013

Haruf and Shipstead: authors in command of their craft

Two wise and insightful novels that explore the interaction of families within closely knit communities.

Book 42: Benediction by Kent Haruf

As in two earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, Kent Haruf's Benediction is set in the small town of Holt on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

As the novel opens, Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store, learns he is dying of cancer.

Against the backdrop of Dad's rapidly approaching death, Haruf examines the rhythms of life in a small town with its closely observed -- but unspoken -- rituals.

Among those rituals are visits to the dying.  It is in those visits that we meet most of the book's characters.

There is Dad's wife of many years; his daughter, who has made the drive from Denver to provide care and comfort in her father's final days; and, off-stage, Dad's long-absent son, alienated from his father because of his homosexuality.

A neighbor provides food, support for Dad's wife and keeps unwanted visitors at bay. Her young granddaughter, Alice, who recently lost her own mother to cancer, is a counterpoint to Dad. She is a little frightened of him. He is drawn to her innocence and fullness of life.

Other visitors include an elderly farm woman and her daughter, recently retired from teaching; a disaffected pastor; and two employees of the hardware store.

No matter how briefly each character appears they are finely drawn, distinct individuals. It is one of Haruf's strengths as a writer to draw accurate portrayals with only a few well-chosen words.

He also handles this material wisely, deftly, with great respect, warmth and affection for his characters and for the town of Holt.

This tender, warm-hearted novel is a bittersweet benediction and a celebration of a small town and its people.

Book 44: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The characters in Maggie Shipstead's comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements, do not fare as well as Haruf's.

They are self-centered, small-minded, petty snobs who would be eminently unlikable if Shipstead did not handle her material with such humor and skill.

As one character observes she "had almost forgotten how these families worked, how they were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors' servants."

The family in question belongs to Winn Van Meter. Winn, his wife and two daughters have gathered at their ancient family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke.  There, Winn's eldest daughter is to be married.

Winn's is less focused on the wedding than he is the public knowledge of his youngest daughter's abortion, the sexual advances of a bridesmaid less than half his age and his inability to be admitted to a private golf course on Waskeke.

The knowledge that he may have been blackballed from the golf club truly rankles Winn.

Seating Arrangements is one of those novels that invites readers to quote passages to hapless bystanders.

Here's one:

"You ought to go to law school," Oatsie said decisively. "You'd make a wonderful lawyer. You have beautiful hair." 
"Thank you," Livia said. When she was old, she wanted to be like Oatsie: imperious, brusque, and given to non sequitur.

And another:

"It's so cold in this restaurant. I don't know why you chose it." 
"I didn't choose it," Winn said. "Dicky and Maude did." 
"They wouldn't have. They know I don't care for the cold." 
"Maybe," Winn offered, "you're feeling the chill of approaching death." 
She gave him a long, gloomy squint. "This family is falling into the middle class," she said.
The humor -- and there's lots of it -- arises naturally from the material, although Shipstead doesn't play it all for laughs. She's an insightful writer and her close observations of the manners and mores of the upper class are reminiscent of the work of Edith Wharton.

The characters in Seating Arrangements and Benediction come from vastly different worlds, but they have in common authors who employ an eye for detail, a keen understanding of human behavior and a command of their craft.

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