Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2000. 363 pp)
Wendell Berry is the author of fifty books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was recently awarded the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Louis Bromfield Society Award. For over forty years he has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, in Kentucky.
Jayber (Jonah) Crow, town barber and gravedigger for the rural town of Port William, KY, recounts his life’s journey in Berry’s Jayber Crow. Crow loses both parents in the flu epidemic of 1918 at the age of four, and moves in with his elderly grandparents who both pass away by the time he is ten. These early life events end up being rather formative, ushering him into seminary, and later to small jobs after the great flood of 1937. However, he eventually finds his life’s work as the town barber. Much of his story revolves around Mattie Keith, whom he first notices when she is fourteen years of age. She marries handsome Troy Chatham, who, trying to become an ever-grander agribusinessman, gradually wastes her inheritance, and who, perhaps partly in self-loathing, cheats on her. When Jayber sees Troy cheating, he vows in secret to be the faithful husband he feels Mattie should have, and so he is until her death.
Andrew: We’ve both had some experience reading Wendell Berry prior to Jayber Crow. How did this impact your view of the author?
Donovan: I can’t help but view the whole picture of Wendell Berry. A prolific author, Berry dabbles in fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism. He’s renowned as much as a literary great as he is a theologian, an economist as much as he is a farmer. Having read Berry’s cultural criticism in great detail before picking up Jayber Crow, my view of the book can’t be dissociated from Berry’s weltanschauung.
Simply put, Berry writes on the pastoral virtues of the small town. For all of our wayward sadness about the crushing feeling of modern life, Berry presents a simple alternative: small town community. Berry begins Jayber Crow with a note on the engrained richness of small town life:
“If you have lived in Port William a little more than two years, you are still, by Port William standards, a stranger, liable to have your name mispronounced” (11).
If you have spent any time bickering on the phone with Comcast, the idea of building roots in a small community with local business interests is a stark contrast. Trust takes time, but it’s also a way of life. In such a place, it’s impossible to take advantage of others. Doing so would mean an inability to live.
Donovan: What about you, Andrew? How were your views on Berry affected?
Andrew: While you found Berry in the cultural criticism, I previously knew Berry through his works of poetry. Much like his cultural criticism, his poetry very much focuses on the pastoral life. Berry, more than anything else, wishes those around him to embrace the agrarian, simplistic lifestyle. Himself living in rural Kentucky, he wants everyone to find the joys of simplicity.
What I enjoy most about Berry is his knack for the pen. He writes with such ease and beauty. Gently elegiac, Jayber recounts tales in a way that shows community throughout, with a constant tension for the desire for isolation and an urge for connectivity with others. His time with Mattie borders on both the tragic and beautiful—it reminded me of Dante Alegheri’s Beatrice in his Divine Comedy. But, his time in Port William is what struck me the most. I believe that we all have a desire for simpler times, even if we don’t act on them. Berry’s poetic touch made me long for simpler things.
“One was, I felt at home. There is more to this than I can explain. I just felt at home. After I got to Port William , I didn’t feel any longer that I needed to look around to see if there was someplace I would like better” (123).
Andrew: What themes do you find present in the novel?
Donovan: I notice the same. As Jayber tells his story, the theme of community and small town circles back to the forefront constantly. As a barber, Jayber exists as a central pivot for the rest of the town members.
“Most of my customers, I think, were satisfied enough. But they cam to my shop, really, because they had always come, and because they felt at home” (289).
Not to say competency takes a back seat, Jayber would have long since gone out of business if he couldn’t handle a pair of scissors. But Berry notes something deeper about relationship and the meaning of work when he writes about the people who frequent the barbershop. Yes, a service has been requested. But more importantly, a friendly face and a welcoming communal area are needed.
Donovan: Let’s talk final thoughts. What did you think overall?
Andrew: I enjoy Berry’s musings on small life. However, having read Berry, I’m slowly becoming wary of his one mantra. I enjoy how he combines poetry, narrative, and cultural criticism together, but sometimes Jayber Crow became a little too preachy on the “live simpler” front. It is to Berry’s credit however, that a novel so burdened with ideas and ideology is so lyrical with warmth and genuineness. In the end, his saving tactic is his knack for small statements and anecdotes that illustrate the corrosive effects of substituting efficiency for lovingkindness.
I would recommend Jayber Crow to most. It’s a fantastically penned tale.
“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told. As almost any barber can testify, there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear” (29).
Donovan: Even though I enjoy Berry’s point of view, I had moments of frustration while reading Jayber Crow. A talented author—clearly, considering the amount of work published over countless genres—Berry tends to weave between narrative, poetry, and cultural criticism. While I appreciate what he’s saying, I found such discourses distracting.
Consider this valid critique:
“The Economy no longer wanted the people of Port William to produce, for instance, eggs. It wanted them to eat eggs without producing them. Or, more properly speaking, it wanted them to buy eggs. It didn’t care whether the eggs were eaten or not, so long as they were bought. It didn’t care how fresh they were or how good they were, so long as they were bought. Perhaps, so long as they were paid for, The Economy was not much interested even in delivering the eggs” (275).
While the section proves his point about the shifting foundation of Port William, it sits on the precipice between a valid literary device and an interjection of cultural criticism.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed Jayber Crow and would recommend it in concert with a wide variety of Berry’s writings.
Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5
Donovan’s Verdict: 3 out of 5
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