Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Jayber Crow opens with a riff on the opening of Huckleberry Finn*, admonishing interpreters and explainers of the novel, taking a more fitting revenge on the offerors of cheap analysis than the summary execution that Twain recommended. (As for me, the subtext is staring me right in the chops, so it's with a heavy heart that I accept my banishment.) It's an interesting contrast. I read Twain with a cutting sense of humor and sarcasm, a conflicted soul and a precise stylist, a sense of innocence that he embraced or lambasted with varying degrees of intent. I confess to a preference for the more playful style, and with Twain I do feel a certain sense of Yankee homerism, as well as a minor resonance with a tone that I often try to achieve. I'd say it's that divided spirit, but then here's Berry again, telling us that someone must be "troubled enough in their own hearts to have something to say." Maybe it's all a matter of delivery. Berry's writing is calm and mature, the narration clipped of any cynicism beyond maybe a gentle head shake as Jayber muses on the past. Words are chosen deliberately, in short sentences, and there are hardly any contractions used in the prose. It is a slow voice, like a beloved grandfather saying: stop, sit, listen. He weights everything with a sad foreknowledge of the future. There's a danger of saccharine here, but Berry is in command of the prose, and his heart is sufficiently troubled. The writing is often beautiful.

The novel, as you can pick up from the cover, is the memoir of an elderly narrator from the river town of Port William, Kentucky. He's a bachelor, a barber, janitor, and gravedigger by trade (which contents him well enough), a man of few words, who is excluded from certain of the upstanding social circles. But using his own sparing language, Berry gradually paints him as a man of deep and sensitive character. Jayber gradually decides to join the "membership" of the community, and tells various stories of its people and himself. Like all of us, Jayber Crow sees his world as hopeful and vibrant at the time of his youth, and as lost and dying when he is old. That the age of this man is meant to accurately reflect the Port William's health is a novelist's conceit. In his understanding of Port William, Jayber sees loss of farm space as an inevitable component of the march of civilization. Introduction of debt financing and a consumption economy (as I've recently babbled) to an agricultural community that was formerly self-sufficient is one part of it, but it's more a matter of overdevelopment, of the quiet and insensate expansion of powerful machinations into quiet rural life. Switters managed to pick the one quote in the whole damn book that rubbed me the wrong way, which used the word "scientific" to describe this progress, and I can't quite agree with that, even though I liked the other 14,000 words on the subject very much. Berry is pushing for simplicity here, and Jayber himself, the literary autodidact and chronicler of natural connections, is a simple man who doesn't by any means embody ignorance. It's a distinction which I appreciate, and if we can find a world where those two concepts don't correlate, it seems like a good one to live in. (Would that it's where this one was going.) But there are crimes of connectedness (just like there are sins of segregation), and the loss of the simpler community is a very real loss. We're offered a eulogy for it here, each departure catalogued as a tug on individual heartstrings.

In order to perform as a narrator, Jayber has to be both an observer and an insider. Berry accomplishes this by giving him a background that's common to novel characters. The familiar stuff is all there: the young orphan, the boarding school, the prodigious and independent reader, the outcast, the nature-lover, the reprobate, the unrequited lover with a hope of something like redemption: these are roles more common to the population of literature (and people who resort to literature) than, I think, to your typical small-town barbers. I suppose you could look at it the other way too, and say that as a habitual reader of novels, that's the format in which Jayber is likely to represent his own life. That story of unresolved affection is for one Mattie Keith (later Chatham), and is telegraphed early, but brought into the story at leisure. The central Port William story is the transformation and fate of the Keith farm over a couple of generations, which I imagine was meant by Berry to be a synecdoche for the casualties of the march of progress. Jayber's life story sometimes seems tacked on around this longish episode, possibly as a vehicle to give more views of the little society. His infatuation with Mattie is, I think, meant to mirror his feeling for the town, and the youthful Odyssey and the establishment of a home by the river** are meant to further fill out his sense of love for the place. It feels a little episodic, but Jayber Crow's understanding of the place feels solid and heartfelt.

Port William at its peak is almost an idealized farm town, and certainly the Keith farm is thrown up as an ideal approach of resource management, independence, and honest labor. I can see the inspiration in there. It's also a southern tobacco-growing town with hardly any black people, suspiciously insulating it from history. (Kentucky didn't really maintain the plantations that other southern states managed, but less-bad is still unconscionable. It's written out because I don't think Berry wants his paean to the farm to include the forced indenture of a whole population.) The town is also carefully isolated by its ruralness, connected to the outside world (in its best times) by only the narrow thread of the river. Although it's filled up with real people, I don't quite believe in Port William, at least not as a typical place. And it's not that I have to: the setting actually feels like well-written science fiction, where consistent application or removal of some real-world constraints can illustrate aspects of the world better the actual muddy past can. Call it America's Shire, and when Jayber goes There and Back Again, it's to witness the filthy industrial machine, the "real world", that'd eventually overrun the place.

(I also can't see the Kentucky River agricultural civilization as timelessly as Jayber can. Anyone living there, say, 200 years before Jayber Crow might have had a similar reaction to Whitey wandering by, cutting down all the trees, and scaring away the game. Sustainable local or regional agricultural models do certainly get some better credit than mechanized ones, having in some cases stood for many centuries pre-industry. Farming technology was slow but hardly static in the east and west, and even then not without environmental effects like deforestation and soil erosion, but it still looks like a much better record for stability of human population, at least if you don't mind the occasional famine.)

Eventually we get to the love story. I can be a softie for tales of true love denied, but taken without text, subtext, or analysis, it's an infatuation that came to Jayber's life far too late. Developing an excruciating crush when you are not a teenager can't possibly be healthy, when opportunities to grow into your senses come up considerably less frequently. If you can take the situation objectively, Jayber's feelings for Mattie were a lot like those of a 14-year-old nerd, and I kept wondering what her view of him might have been all those years. His strict hands-off affection must have been obvious and intense, and her own cautious distance was a perfectly logical response. I don't take Jayber as an unreliable sort of narrator--I trust the sincerity and chastity of his feelings--and of course a not-much-deeper reading says that this emotion is about more than just Mattie. A great theme of his story is learning how to love the world that won't necessarily love you back. It forms the essence of Jayber's religious ruminations. Like his younger self, my own agnosticism comes from an unwillingness to accept the Biblical (or equivalent) story as some kind of useful description, accurate history or comprehensive moral map. On the other hand, I very much understand the idea of loving the world so much that it can break your heart. The very idea breaks my heart. Does Christianity really follow from that? Is it too generous (or too insulting) to humanize God that way? I don't quite see it, but then I'm still far from Jayber's age. Or Berry's.

* One of the small handful of things I actually remember from Twain's novel, having last read it when I was 11 or so. I've read other Twain more recently.

** Quite a lot of these associations are switters' fault.

[some edits]

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