Men’s Books #2: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Nora was about to go to her volunteer shift at the library. The first Monday of the month, from four to six. Kimberly would be there for part of it, but the volunteers gave her a little extra time for herself. She deserved that.

Bring home a book for me, Herb said before she left, and he handed Nora a paper with a title and the author on it. She brought it home that evening. Why did you want this book?

I read it a few years ago. I wanted to read it again. I thought maybe I’d write about it. I’m starting a book club.

He explained a little about that idea, and she thought it was a good one. But after dinner, she started to read it herself.

I wonder why he writes like that, she said later that evening. It’s flat.

Well, I think he’s trying to have it feel plain. Like even quotation marks would make it all feel special, like their words were important and not just words.

Even this section, she said. And she quoted from a part of the book she’d just read, where Louis and the boy were in a hardware store so Louis could buy the boy a baseball glove. She read. “That cap’ll keep you from getting burned up in this sun, the little man said. Rudy was his name, Louis knew him from years ago. It was a wonder he was still working, a wonder that he was still alive. The other manager, a tall man named Bob, had died years ago. And the woman who owned the store had gone back to Denver after her mother died.”

She hinged the book almost closed across her thumb. Why is it that we need to know the name of the other manager? And that the woman who owned the store was gone to Denver?

I think it’s because Louis would know those things. It’s another way to show us who Louis is.

She read the book in three days. That was unusual for her, she normally sat with a book for a long time and read just a few pages at a sitting. Every so often she’d say, I’m forgetting whether this is his book or yours. I want to ask you why you did something or another, and then I remember that you didn’t write this. But it feels like you. It feels true.

He liked that idea. He didn’t write anything at all like this writer Haruf did, but he wanted to read the book again because he thought it had a kind of decency to it. It was a book about a man who was kind and who seemed to know how to be kind even when other people weren’t. So when she said that Haruf’s book reminded her of his own, he was pleased with that. It felt good.

They’d had a few hard days leading up to her reading the book, mostly because of something else Herb had written. But it seemed like now she was able to hear him again, to remember that he was trying to be kind even when other people weren’t, and that he was drawn to write about people like that himself. That was why he’d wanted to read this book again, because there was something decent and generous about it.

Other people wrote about Haruf’s books, too. Sometimes important people, like Joan Silber, who wrote for the New York Times that “his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” She wrote about him that way because he’d just died, not long after finishing the book but before anybody besides his editor and his wife Cathy had gotten to read it.

The book is flat, like Nora said. But it’s not flat in the same way that Hemingway was, even though the sentences are short and the language is simple. Hemingway had something to prove, and like most men with something to prove, he wasn’t going to let you know how he felt. That tightness was a resistance to emotion, keeping things aboveground. Haruf was simple too, but it was because Louis and Addie didn’t need to prove much of anything. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re stingy. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re generous, and they want to leave space for others. They look the same if you’re not paying attention, but they feel different.

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