Thursday, May 8, 2008

Book Review: Jayber Crow

Yes, I am celebrating: I finally finished reading Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow. I am pretty sure that I deserve something: a bag of caramels, some Marble Slab ice cream, or a check for $1000.

Honestly, I am stumped as to how to review this book. I mean, check out this introduction to the book on
The questions who and what and how and why are no doubt useful and occasionally even noble in their place. But for Wendell Berry, whose spare and elegant prose has long testified to the rural American values of thrift and frugality, four interrogatives must seem a waste, when one will do. Where is the ultimate qualifier, the sine qua non, for both the author and his characters. Place shapes them and defines them; the winding Kentucky River and the gentle curves of the Kentucky hills find an echo in their lilting speech and brusque affections.
I don't even know what that means. First of all, I would not use the adjective "spare" to describe Wendell Berry's writing. Elegant, yes. Spare, no. Hemingway is spare. Faulkner is expansive. Berry lies closer to Faulkner on that scale. Berry's writing is carefully, beautifully, even majestically crafted; this is the ultimate poetic novel. One reviewer on writes: "This book is about many things, but should be read mostly for the sake of experiencing Berry's really fine writing." I absolutely second that assessment. Berry offers profound insights and wisdom wrapped in exquisite language. Really, the character of Jayber Crow himself, former barber of the tiny Port William, is tertiary.

The story itself, on the basic plot level, is about the life of Jayber Crow and the rural town of Port William. But overriding this is the theme of what is lost with progress, and what is found in community. Living in an area that is forever being eaten by machinery, I know the ache of losing quiet beauty to big houses and faster ways of getting places. When you see the countryside bleeding red soil from its great gashes around here, you know how this is:
More than television, the interstate brought the modern world into Port William. More even than The Economy and The War, it carried the people of Port William into the modern world. It was a thing of unimaginable influence. People in Port William would find it handy to drive to work or to shop in Louisville. And Louisville would find it handy to grow farther out into the countryside. City lots would be carved out of farms, raising of course the price of farmland, so that urban people could enjoy the spaciousness of rural life while looking evening and morning at the rear ends of one another's automobiles.
And Berry surprised me with his insights into Christianity. I knew he advocated stewardship of the earth; I didn't know that he was tagged as a contemporary Christian writer. It was in the last half of this novel that Jayber Crow's spiritual journey becomes more pronounced, and I began folding down pages. Like Harper Lee in the magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird, Berry disposes of religious legalism and emphasizes the relational qualities taught by Christ: take care of one another. Love your neighbor. Breathe deeply.
On Sunday mornings I go up to ring the bell and sit through the service. I don't attend altogether for religious reasons. I feel more religious, in fact, here beside this corrupt and holy stream. I am not sectarian or evangelical. I don't want to argue with anybody about religious. I wouldn't want to argue about it even if I thought it was arguable, or even if I could win. I'm a literal reader of the Scriptures, and so I see the difficulties. And yet every Sunday morning I walk up here, over a cobble of quibbles. I am, I suppose a difficult man. I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.
Brilliant. And the exquisite poetry: cobble of quibbles! Berry is remarkable, and yet I can't say I truly enjoyed this novel. My personal assessment is I need Berry in smaller does than a 360-page novel. I need to read Berry more as a poet and an essayist, and perhaps as a short story writer, before I tackle another of his novels. He's too enormous for this season of my life, in which my reading is limited to an hour in the evening, when I often can scarcely stay awake. He deserves a more careful audience.

1 comment:

Marbel said...

Just had to stop in and reread this. I am making my way slowly through the book. It is beautiful. So much to ponder. I'll check back in when I've finished - it might be a long time.