The questions who
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.
Jayber Crow is another story of the Port William membership, the community whose life--and lives--Berry has unfurled over the course of a half dozen novels. Jayber himself is an orphan, lately returned to the town. And his status as barber and bachelor places him simultaneously at its center and on its margins. A born observer, he hears much, watches carefully, and spends 50 years learning its citizens by heart.
They were rememberers, carrying in their living thoughts all the history that such places as Port William ever have. I listened to them with all my ears, and have tried to remember what they said, though from remembering what I remember I know that much is lost. Things went to the grave with them that will never be known again.
Jayber tells the town's stories tenderly. Gently elegiac, the novel charts the tension between an urge to isolation and an impulse to connectivity, writ both small and large. As the 20th century moves inexorably forward, swallowing in great mechanized gulps rural towns governed by agricultural rhythms, Port William turns in upon itself. And as Jayber admits quietly, "Once a fabric is torn, it is apt to keep tearing. It was coming apart. The old integrity had been broken." Integrity, both whole and shattered, is key to the stories of Burley Coulter, Cecelia Overhold, Troy Chatham, and above all, Athey Keith and his daughter Mattie, to whom Jayber pledges his undying and unrequited love.
Berry's prose, so carefully tuned that you never know it is there, carries us into the very heart of the land itself; his exquisitely constructed sentences suggesting the cyclic rhythms of his agrarian world. Jayber Crow resonates with variations played on themes of change, looping transitions from war into peace, winter into spring, browning flood destruction into greening fields, absence into presence, lost into found. --Kelly Flynn
From Publishers Weekly
The role of community in the shaping of character is a recurring theme in the work of poet, essayist and novelist Berry, as evidenced once more in this gratifying novel set in Berry's fictional Port William, Ky. Jayber Crow, town barber from 1937 until 1969, is born in the environs of Port William, but after the deaths of his parents and, later, his guardians, he is sent to an out-of-town orphanage at the age of 10. Returning 13 years later, in the flood year of 1937, the solitary young man goes on to learn the comradely ways of the town. "In modern times much of the doing of the mighty has been the undoing of Port William and its kind," Crow reflectsAa reflection, too, of Berry's often-stated beliefs that salvation must be local, that rootlessness and a fixation on the postindustrial era's bright new toys will destroy us environmentally and economically. Crow earns his living with simple tools; he becomes a church sexton, though he is not unthinkingly pious; and his unrequited love for farmer's wife Mattie Chatham is pure and strong enough to bring him serene faith. In contrast, Mattie's husband, Troy, the novel's villain, disturbs the "patterns and cycles of work" on Mattie's family farm, trumpeting "whatever I see, I want" and using a tractor. The tractor stands for the introduction of new machinery and the unraveling of the fabric of family farming. It is not surprising when Troy cheats on his wife nor does it come as a shock when the Chatham's young daughter becomes a victim of dire chance. Berry's narrative style is deliberately traditional, and the novel's pace is measured and leisurely. Crow's life, which begins as WWI is about to erupt, is emblematic of a century of upheaval, and Berry's anecdotal and episodic tale sounds a challenge to contemporary notions of progress. It is to Berry's credit that a novel so freighted with ideas and ideology manages to project such warmth and luminosity. 12-city author tour. (Sept.)
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