A couple weeks ago, I characterized Toni Morrison’s new novel as “easy to read, hard to forget.” The same can be said of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night (Knopf, digital galley), as slim as Morrison’s but otherwise quite different, written with a quiet eloquence, no words wasted. I read it easily in one afternoon’s sitting, then felt guilty for consuming it so quickly, knowing that Haruf wrote it in the months before he died last November at age 71. He knew he didn’t have long to live, but every day he wrote another short chapter. It’s the last gift from the author who already has given us the trilogy made up of Plainsong, Evenside and Benediction, set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt.
Our Souls at Night is also set in Holt, and even though we haven’t previously met the widow and widower at novel’s heart, they seem familiar from the first sentence on: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” Without much ado, and only a little stammering, Addie gets to the point of her visiting a neighbor she has seen around for years but doesn’t really know. Would Louis like to come over to her place and spend the night? No, not sex, she says, but lying warm beside each other, talking in the dark.
Louis, who is as lonely in his empty house as Addie, eventually agrees to her proposition and arrives at her back door at evening, his pajamas in a paper sack. Neither is sure how this instant intimacy is going to go, but Addie tells Louis to use the front door the next time he comes. At 70, she’s tired of worrying what other people think and there’s nothing disgraceful about their friendship. They reveal themselves to one another by sharing stories of their pasts — the death of Addie’s daughter, the long-ago affair Louis had with a fellow teacher, his wife’s long illness, her husband’s sudden heart attack in church.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for the town grapevine to get going, and some folks are scandalized, although Addie’s octagenarian next-door neighbor Ruth tells her to have fun. Louis’ grown daughter who lives out of town is initially shocked but firmly tells a gossipy friend to mind her own business. Addie’s shy, 6-year-old grandson Jamie arrives for the summer while his parents work out their marital problems, and Louis quickly wins the boy over. His and Addie’s nighttimes continue, but now there are daytime activities as well — watching a baseballl game, going on a picnic, adopting a shelter dog.
The snake in the grass turns out to be Gene, Addie’s controlling son, who whisks away a sobbing Jamie and starts throwing out ultimatums. (As a reader, I wanted to kick Gene’s selfish butt.) His mother and Louis may seem like gentle souls, but they’re not ready to give up on life and go quietly into the good night. They like holding hands and talking in the dark.