Wendell Berry,
Jayber Crow
(Counterpoint Press, 2000)

There are four Americans writing today who have a genius that's been unknown since maybe Emerson and Thoreau for drawing a reader into a particular landscape: Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry and William Least Heat Moon. Pick up a book by any of them and you will discover an American landscape that is, to paraphrase Berry, extraordinarily seen, as if it might be visible in the dark.

Berry's genius for seeing a place, his moral vision, his understanding of the human economy and his skill in describing what he sees have won him numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Jean Stein Award, the T.S. Eliot Award, a Lannan Foundation Award for nonfiction and the 2000 Poets' Prize. His poem "The Country of Marriage" is one I like to discuss with couples who come to me to be wed.

Kudos as well to Carole McCurdy, copyeditor for this book. I love it when I find a book whose copyeditor seems to know and care what she or he is doing.

Jayber Crow the book is not a textbook, although like so much of Berry's work there are many lessons contained within -- lessons about love, community, friendship and work that are as old as time and yet prophetic in the way parables are always prophetic.

In Jayber Crow the man, I recognized the bits I liked best about my dad and my maternal grandfather, the consciousness that life is a harvest, the appreciation of solitude and a connection to the soil. All three men share a character trait I'm eternally grateful to have inherited. Like them, I have an abiding need to put down roots; metaphysical roots as well as actual plant roots. One of the first things I do when I arrive at a new place to live is put something in the ground. Until I plant a garden, I am not home. The metaphysical roots come with listening. Jayber Crow listens to the stories and weaves them with his memories. He keeps the stories and ponders them in his heart.

It's a way of living that I like. Our society, constantly in flux, suffers harm for lack of this kind of root setting. The fabric of the community gets frayed and torn, businesses are ruined and social and economic networks disintegrate when people forget to listen to the rhythm of the place where they find themselves.

Jayber Crow brings us home to a place already familiar to Berry's readers, the Port William community, and among people already there in earlier works Nathan Coulter and Two More Stories of the Port William Membership. The Port William Membership describes a small, clearly imagined town and surrounding neighborhood on the Kentucky River, not too far geographically, from Louisville.

The narrator is born Jonah Crow in 1914 at Goforth on Katy's Branch, just a short buggy ride upriver from Port William. Orphaned twice by age 10, he learns early about the need to define himself when, at the orphanage, he is called only J. Crow. He also learns that he is not cut out ever to deal successfully with "the man across the desk." And, he learns barbering.

Answering what he perceives to be a call to the ministry, he enters college. Soon however, he begins to question the inconsistencies he finds in the Bible. He finds that he will be unable to preach the gospel with any integrity and seeks out "Old Grit," his professor of New Testament Greek. He tells the professor that the words of Jesus are all that hold true for him, but if it all boils down to "Thy will be done," what is the use even of praying? Their short interview and J. Crow's ministerial future ends when the professor says to him: "You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out -- perhaps a little at a time."

"And how long is that going to take?"

"I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps."

"That could be a long time."

"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. "It may take longer."

J. Crow packs up his few belongings and heads out on foot for Lexington. By a circuitous route, he ends up a few years later, after the flood of '37, back in Port William as the town barber and eventually its gravedigger as well. As the town barber, J. Crow becomes Jayber Crow and as he settles in and people remember him, they begin to accept him as a member of the community. And he falls in love. That love sustains him and he tenderly sustains it as well.

Jayber Crow is a man of faith, constant in love and deliberate in action. His is an examined life, with values and morals frequently tested and held up for examination. He is a good friend, steady and true.

What he is best, though, is a keen observer of the community, its people, the landscape and the river, and the world.

I was twenty-eight in 1942, and it looked like to me that I ought to have got my mind settled on some of the major questions. But the war did to my thoughts what a harrow does to crusted ground. ... I was glad I had not become a preacher, and so would not have to go through a war pretending that Jesus had not told us to love our enemies.

Loving his enemies is not a lesson learned lightly by Jayber Crow. He struggles mightily with it when it comes to Troy Chatham, the profligate, philandering husband of the woman he loves.

In fact, of all the trials I have experienced, he was the hardest. He was the trial that convicted me over and over again. I did not like him. ... And in the presence of Troy Chatham, which was getting to be about the only place where I really needed that charity and really suffered for the want of it, I didn't have it.

He lives through the Second War and two more, observing his neighbors, learning their stories and burying their dead.

There is something just about unbearably intimate about filling a grave, especially if it matters to you whose grave it is. I would rather do it by myself. I would rather, if I had my rathers, not be seen doing it. It is the very giving of the body to the earth, the sealing over of its absence until the world's end.

Jayber Crow is a man in place who honors the place where he is. The place where I connected with him most closely, I think because I live near such a place, is in a bit of old forest, the Nest Egg, the fate of which held for me much of the tension in the novel.

Everything there seemed to belong where it was. That was why I went there. And I went to feel the change that that place always made in me. Always, as soon as I came in under the big trees, I began to go slowly and quietly. This was not because I was hunting (I hunted in other places), but because in a place where everything belongs where it is, you do not want to disturb anything. I went slowly and quietly. I watched where I put my feet. I went for solace and comfort, for a certain quietness of mind that came to me in no other place. Even the nettles and mosquitoes comforted me, for they belonged where they were.

Whether he's describing the arrival of the freeway and its affect on Port William; recreational boating; the affect of overweaning pride in an individual; his home on the river or a foggy morning, Jayber Crow is a man whose observations you can trust. He's a man you ought to get to know.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]

Buy Jayber Crow from Amazon.com.