The American novelist Kent Haruf, who wrote six novels, often depicting the old and lonely, died last November at 71 years old. Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night (2015), brings together another elderly couple, Addie and Louis, two vivid, flawed, likeable, and completely believable characters.
They’re both widowed, in the final stretch of their lives. They’re both virile creatures, not likely to be found on the porch in wistful, happily-ignored reminiscence. These are doers. Only, there’s very little to do in this particular town, other than fail to mind your own business — and Addie decides to make a suggestion to Louis, who lives nearby, that will give local intrigue vultures plenty to chew on.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
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.
He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.
You don’t say anything. Have I taken your breath away? she said.
I guess you have.
I’m not talking about sex.
No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Yes. I think so.
I end up taking pills to go to sleep and reading too late and then I feel groggy the next day. No use at all to myself or anybody else.
I’ve had that myself.
But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark. She waited. What do you think?
I don’t know. When would you want to start?
Whenever you want to. If, she said, you want to. This week.
Let me think about it.
He doesn’t turn Addie down; he’s too curious, and has always liked her from afar. When he mentions his wondering about whether or not he should’ve visited to see what he might do when Addie’s husband had died, she chides him for his reluctance. There’s plenty of gentle mutual mockery — this is a staunchly fun arrangement.
What else do you want to know?
Where you came from. Where you grew up. What you were like as a girl. What your parents were like. If you have brothers or sisters. How you met Carl. What’s your relationship with your son. Why you moved to Holt. Who your friends are. What you believe. What party you vote for.
We’re going to have a lot of fun talking, aren’t we? she said. I want to know all that about you too.
We don’t have to rush it, he said.
No, let’s take our time.
She turned in bed and shut off the lamp and again he looked at her bright hair in the light and her bare shoulders, and then in the dark she took his hand and said goodnight and soon she was asleep. It was surprising to him, how quickly she could fall asleep.
No one else is interested in this stuff of long-gone biographical detail, not even, anymore, themselves. They’ve permanently mothballed a lot of it: too painful; too apparently uninteresting. Of no consequence.
What Addie and Louis’s unexpected after-hours rapprochement provides is a restoration of the stuff of each life. They rummage around in each other’s pasts and enliven apparently long-dead moments. They talk about the death of Addie’s daughter, an event that seems to have irreparably devastated her son, Gene. They negotiate Louis’ harrowing, doomed affair. They bond over the twists and turns of two lives and are rejuvenated in their colloquy.
The town talks about what’s happening — this is by far the most interesting bit of intrigue to have happened in years around these parts — but the real threat to this arrangement is Addie’s son, Gene. Gene’s son, Addie’s grandson, comes to stay. He’s being spared the squabbling disintegration of his parents’ marriage, and during his lengthy spell with Grandma forms a fatherly bond with Louis, the kind of bond Gene — terminally selfish, ruined — could never provide. Part of Haruf’s brilliance is in making Gene both an effective spoiler and a complex, empathetic character. He hasn’t grown beyond the tragedy of his sister’s violent demise.
Gene is predictably dismissive of Louis, and spiteful regarding his time with his son. He threatens to withdraw the boy, stop him seeing grandma, if his mother continues to have Louis round. It’s a despicably cruel act, but it’s not a situation Addie can resolve. It’s Haruf giving the world its due. These nights of solace and kinship and bold cancellation of expectations of decorum and tolerant dwindling were a brief flash of light and life. Addie sticks with family and inexorably chooses self-abnegation, presumably hoping she can at least try and offset the likelihood of her grandson emulating his father.
Because Addie and Louis are so expertly drawn, Haruf can have them bear the burden of virtually all the narrative propulsion. This is a swift, sure, and efficient stab to the heart. These are world-weary old timers who stubbornly and simply refuse to allow convention to cloud what may still be possible, however long is left. They’re still looking for answers, despite knowing there are none, but are happy to be in the game, not simply looking on. There’s a quiet defiant euphoria to this that pushes you through the pages, wanting them to find some kind of resolution.
The author wrote this right at the end of his life, and in producing a piece of work this eloquently pained and admirably optimistic (that strange Harufian paradox: sadly, uncompromisingly wise but open-minded and ready to be pleasantly surprised) has afforded us a supremely generous, accomplished, and rare perspective.
A considerable part of the book’s force, then, is probably down to the circumstances surrounding its composition. Our Souls at Night often feels like an antidote to the idea of any kind of “grand final statement” but is nonetheless imbued with a kind of conclusive gravitas. It’s the least importunate last word you could imagine, and that serves to heighten a sense of resounding culmination.
Very little happens, but the setup is so masterfully executed that every word feels like a revelation. Conversations about the most potentially anodyne matters are charged with a terrible, hypnotic, tragic luminosity. These are minds not ready to be closed; these are people who will be as interested in how their final moments feel as they will be devastated by them. This is a deeply-felt plea for forgiveness and understanding and the necessity of companionship and comradeship. It’s also unquestionably a minor masterwork.
Here’s a scene from close to the end of the novel. At this point, Addie and Louis are separated for good. It could be unbearably moving, but Haruf’s going out with a smile just the right side of ambivalent.
One night she called him on her cell phone. She was sitting in a chair at her apartment. Will you talk to me?
There was a long silence.
Louis, are you there? she said.
I thought we weren’t going to talk anymore.
I have to. I can’t go on like this. It’s worse than before we ever started.
What about Gene?
He doesn’t have to know. We can talk on the phone at night.
Then this seems like sneaking. Like he said. Being secretive.
I don’t care. I’m too lonely. I miss you too much. Won’t you talk to me?
I miss you too, he said. Where are you?
You mean where in the house?
Are you in your bedroom?
Yes, I’ve been reading.
Is this some kind of phone sex?
It’s just two old people talking in the dark, Addie said.