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Benediction by Kent Haruf, book of a lifetime: The author describes the act of dying almost like the act of giving birth


This spring, as we were completing the summer issue of Granta, American Wild, I started reading Kent Haruf.

Benediction, his latest book, is about an old man who is dying of lung cancer. Dad Lewis lives in the small town of Holt, Colorado, on a quiet, empty street. His wife Mary is looking after him, with help from the district nurse and the hospital, and a daughter, who comes home.

Haruf describes the act of dying almost like the act of giving birth: a natural process, a slipping in and out of morphine dreams, a gradual withdrawal. There are visitations from the dead, as gnarled and taciturn as they no doubt were in life. There is also a son, alienated and lost.

The drama of Dad Lewis's memories builds up to the climactic memory of his son, and another boy, on a horse: "Frank behind the other boy, their heads close together, and each of them was dressed in one of Lorraine's frilly summer dresses, trotting in and out of the shafts of sunlight." In the homophobic climate of the midwest in a timeless 20th-century past, the son disappeared into an urban – and poor – existence.

The boy is gone. And his parents wait. There are suspected sightings, there is a sense that he might walk in through the door, but the truth of the book, and of life, is that he never does.

I wrote to Kent Haruf to tell him how much I liked his novels, for the precision of his vocabulary, for the grace that runs through his books, and for the realism. Some of his protagonists recover; others do not. There are good people and bad people, gentle rhythms infused with harsher notes. I thought, I wrote, of Laura Ingalls Wilder overlaid with Cormac McCarthy.

American Wild implies loss, as well as exhilaration, and danger. All of that is there in Haruf, along with a measure of grace and peace of mind. Dad Lewis dies, as we all will. Life carries on, as it does.

'Granta 128: American Wild', edited by Sigrid Rausing, £12.99 or £10.99 inc p&p from the Independent Bookshop