Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry writes trenchant essays and beautiful poetry. I have read both with great pleasure. My first Berry book was the collection Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, which is not bad entry point. It is a fierce argument for community and against the ravages of industrial level farming. Here I was introduced to his anger at both big business and big government. At the way modern Americans have been essentially turned into consumers. Railing against consumer culture was de rigueur for gen-x, but this was a different, refreshing approach to being anti-corporate. Similar themes can be found in his poetry, which is excellent. It’s simplicity and themes remind me of Anne Porter whose collection An Altogether Different Language (later updated with new poems as Living Things: Collected Poems), is among my favorite poetry. This is in part because in either a blurb or an introduction she was compared to Berry (likely the first time I’d heard of him in 1995 or 6 when I first read it). But the comparison is apt, and if you’ve read the poetry of one, I highly recommend the other. Dealing as he does with what is lost as we become more consumerist and less community focused both as individuals and as a culture, Berry’s work does have a nostalgic bent. I understand that someone might see that nostalgia as a way to dismiss his concerns as those of a cranky old luddite environmentalist who lives in the past. And, in a lot of ways, Berry’s view of an ideal world in which people work in communities, farming reverses its headlong arc into industrialization, politics become primarily local and people shift away from consumption as their primary mode of life is utopian; we are in a lot of ways past the point of no return. Yet, Berry’s stance is a compelling one and argues that to the degree one can turn away from these problems, one should. And that nostalgia is undercut by his insistence that steps can be taken to mitigate the destruction of the land that feeds us. It’s not wallowing in a mythical past. It’s modeling a way forward as well.

As much as I enjoy Berry’s essays and poetry, though, I love his fiction best. I’ve read most of it. It is all set in the Port William Membership, a small farming community in Kentucky. The term membership implies more than living in a community, though it contains that. It implies a commitment and a belonging that is, in large part, Berry’s biggest obsession. Through 30 or 40 stories and seven novels, he traces the history of the membership, both the place and its people. In each novel, different characters take the fore. The Coulters, Feltners, Catletts, Rowenberrys, Keiths and Wheelers become familiar. The earliest stories take place in the late 1800s, maybe even further back, and the most recent reach almost to the current day. As the reader encounters them in book after book and generation after generation they seem like real people. Port William is, in a way, a laboratory in which Berry can play out his ideas of community, fighting back against consumerism, and the way farming should work. Old school Port Williamites have a view similar to Berry’s, and they see those who want to industrialize farming as wrongheaded to some degree or another. Berry is making an argument in most of his fiction, but he rarely forgets to make it art and not a thinly veiled tract. The two characters I enjoy the most from all the fiction are Burley Coulter and Jayber Crow. So no surprise that this is one of my favorites of Berry’s books. The top spot belongs to A Place on Earth which also heavily features those two.

Jayber Crow is Port William’s barber. He was born there and lived there with his parents and then with some aging relatives. When they too died he went to an orphanage and then to a seminary, and eventually back to Port William having picked up barbering skills on the way. The next 40 years he served there in that capacity. The book is narrated by Jayber, old now, living by a river and reflecting on his life. Jayber’s voice is fully realized; funny, moving, dealing with Berry’s themes  (mostly) without being heavy handed. It reminds me a lot of another favorite book (one I read yearly for around a decade) Godric by Frederick Buechner. Godric is the story of Saint Godric narrated by himself to the person who is writing a hagiography of him, and he is horrified at the treacly sanitized version of his life that was the result. And that brings me to Berry’s other great theme: a religion that, while genuine, does not fit into a regular Christian framework. Berry seems to distrust organized religion as much as the forces of modernity.

This is the fourth time I’ve read Jayber Crow. On the first three read-throughs I hit a point early on in which I asked myself why I didn’t consider this my favorite of all books. This time I still felt the pull of those aspects of the book, but I had in mind the one thing that bothers me about the book; it’s unrequited love plot. Jayber Crow is in love with a woman named Mattie Chatham who is married to Troy Chatham, who is unfaithful to her. Jayber decides that in his heart and mind he will be married to her and be the faithful husband she doesn’t have in real life. She will never know of this commitment. This is the one false note to me in the book, and I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it the first few times I read it. It was central to the structure of the book and it was the one thing that really bothered me about it. Then I found out that Berry wrote the novel at least in part as a retelling of the Divine Comedy. In this schema Mattie functions as Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante. She guides Jayber back to his place in the membership, and a religious faith of a sort. Her husband Troy functions as the embodiment of all the forces of the world out to destroy the land in the name of industrial farming and consumerism. I love every other aspect of this book, but I would love to see Mattie’s side of things. I’d love to hear Marilynne Robinson’s take on her, for instance.

But Jayber’s path through the world is otherwise a delight. As a former fervent believer who is now agnostic, the parts where Jayber walks away from the organized faith resonated with me the most. Books like this or Godric are part of the reason I am agnostic and not an atheist. Jayber is an actual believer, but frames himself as protestant even by Protestant standards. Because the church in Berry’s view is part of The Economy and is complicit in The War and in the destruction of the land, Jayber seems to speak for Berry on matters of faith. Ultimately, Berry’s Paradise is not heaven, though it includes that, it is the membership.

And Jayber is an excellent travelling companion. His voice is a delight, one I want floating around in my head. Berry is a prose stylist of the first order; elegant without pretension, incisive without going full-on didactic, funny without undercutting the pathos that he does so well. When I read this I really want to go live in a hut by a river despite how terribly ill-equipped I am for that. It makes me question my choices that landed me working in a bureaucracy. (I love libraries, but they do exist within a bureaucracy.) Despite my misgivings about the Beatrice plot, this is firmly in my personal canon and is the Berry book I love the best, with the exception of A Place on Earth.

Rereads, Library Books, Etc 2020 6/35.

No comments:

Post a Comment