Our Souls at Night is the last of Kent Haruf’s Holt novels — he died not long before its publication. It seems fitting then, I suppose, that it is a bit bleaker than the other two I’ve read, a bit less optimistic about sustaining the kind of quiet humanity that it too holds out as our best hope of comfort in a sometimes inhospitable world.
The premise and story of Our Souls at Night is supremely simple. Addie, a widow, approaches her neighbor Louis, a widower, with an unexpected proposal: “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” She means it literally: she finds the nights lonely and she misses “lying warm in bed, companionably, with someone else,” having someone to talk to in the dark. Louis accepts. The first night is a bit awkward, as they get used to each other, but soon these nights together, talking and then sleeping, become welcome rituals from which a deeper friendship grows.
They live in a small town, though, and the sight of Louis leaving Addie’s house in the morning starts people gossiping. Addie and Louis decide to brazen it out — to “go downtown in the middle of broad daylight and have lunch at the Holt Cafe, and walk right down Main Street and take our time and enjoy ourselves.” As Addie says, they are too old to live in fear of other people’s foolish judgments, and they aren’t doing anything to hurt anyone, just finding some comfort and companionship when they both need it. The outing goes fine, but the town’s talk foreshadows a later complication that won’t be so easily resolved.
The next development — still so simple it hardly feels like one — is Addie’s grandson, Jamie, coming to stay with her. At first Louis stops coming at night, but as the three of them work together to make Jamie feel at home, this precaution starts to seem pointless, and soon Louis is spending the night again. They get Jamie a dog, they go camping, they go to a softball game. Haruf’s prose throughout is as understated as his plot, but he has the gift of letting the significance of these very small things shimmer across the page: it’s hard not to be moved by his quiet message about how much we can do for each other if we’re just willing to be there, together.
But across this strange commonplace idyll comes a destructive shadow: Addie’s son can’t accept his mother’s new friendship, finding the idea of a man in her bed disgusting and interpreting Louis’s motives in coarsely suspicious ways. Instead of rescue or salvation, then (the promise of which dominates both Plainsong and Benediction), Our Souls at Night highlights the possibility of ruin — again, on a very small scale, but in a way that feels larger, more significant, as if Gene’s small-mindedness represents in miniature the threat to all forms of grace. Happiness is made of such fragile things — trust, tolerance, affection, moments of talk and laughter — that it’s always vulnerable to blight. And as Addie and Louis find, resisting may in itself damage the very thing you hoped to protect.
The small scale of all three of these novels is at once literal and deceptive. Haruf focuses on familiar relationships and everyday activities that hardly seem profound or philosophical. But then he shows us the effects of small changes, good and bad, and through their reverberations encourages us to think more abstractly about the human condition — which sounds pretentious in a way that these novels never do. Our Souls at Night is about two people who decide it would be nice to have someone to talk to in the dark. That seems like so little to ask — but Haruf makes it seem like a very precious thing to have.