I had seen Wendell Berry recommended here and there, but hadn’t gotten around to him yet. When I saw Michele was hosting a read-along and discussion of Berry’s Jayber Crow on Thursdays, I decided it would be a good time to read him. I titled this post a discussion rather than a review because I’m still processing what I read and will probably go into things I might not in an ordinary review.
A cursory review of Jayber Crow would mention that he is the barber of a small community called Port William in Kentucky. He’s the narrator, as a man in his seventies looking back on his life and the changes in the community since his birth in 1914.
But to expand a bit:
His parents had died when he was young, and he was taken in by elderly relatives, who also died after a few years. He was sent to an orphanage at the age of ten. The orphanage director had an odd custom of changing each child’s name to their first initial and last name, leaving the orphans “not quite nameless, but also not quite named.”. Jayber’s given name was Jonah Crow, so he was called J. Crow, which eventually became Jay, then Jaybird, then Jayber.
The orphanage was religiously based, and “turned inward, trying to be a world unto itself” (p. 40) with “a set of rules tightly strung between ourselves and the supposed disorder and wickedness of the world” (p. 33). While others, “[hungering] for the world outside” (p. 40), rebelled by escaping and partaking in forbidden activities, Jayber developed his own inner life, looked out the window instead of listening in class, spent a lot of time on the library, took long walks alone. Much was preached about “the call” to be a preacher or missionary. Fearing the consequences of disobeying “the call” (like an earlier Jonah) and in case he might have missed hearing it, he decided to “give [God] the benefit of the doubt” and “accept the call that had not come” (p. 43).
That led him to a scholarship and part-time job at a Christian college. He enjoyed fewer rules, more freedom and independence, and earning some spending money. But he began to have questions about what he saw as conflicts in the Bible, so much so that, after talking to a number of professors who didn’t help him, he finally went to the one he was “afraid to go to…because I knew he was going to tell me the truth” (p. 53). As he spilled forth his questions, Dr. Ardmire asked, “Do you have any answers?” When Jayber said he did not, but didn’t feel he could preach without them, the professor agreed. When Jayber said he had had a feeling he was “called,” the professor answered,
“And you might have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. 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. It may take longer” (p. 54).
In one way I found this section somewhat maddening, not because Jayber had unanswered questions regarding the Bible. We all have them, and some won’t be resolved this side of heaven. But there are answers to some of Jayber’s questions and I was frustrated that the professor didn’t deal with any of them. But perhaps what the professor meant by saying that Jayber could not be given answers was that intellectual arguments wouldn’t suffice, at least for him. Whatever questions he had and answers he needed would have to be wrestled with through faith.
So Jayber left school, found work, started barbering, started school again, not for a major but just to take literature classes. But finally he felt a pull to his roots, and he headed back to Port William and spent the rest of his life there, opening a barber shop and living alone. He describes various people of the town, some a great deal, and the changes over the years. He eventually comes back to a type of faith, though with many of his questions unanswered.
A couple of people he talks about at length are Athey Keith and Troy Chatham. Athey was a quiet, salt of the earth farmer. Troy was the son-in-law of which he did not approve but had to accept to preserve the relationship with his only daughter. Athey used the land with wisdom and care and benefited from it, but not in a way that depleted it. He worked to “[improve] his land; he was going to leave it better than he found it” (p. 179). Troy was the high school star athlete who seemed never to get over the need to “show off” and be admired, and in his mind, the way to succeed was to go bigger – plant more, buy more equipment, etc. until “he had no margins.” “He had, in fact, plenty of intelligence–plenty more than he ever used” (p. 177), but he was totally uninterested in anything Athey tried to teach him and “asked of the land all it had (p. 181).” Their whole story seemed to be almost a parable of what Jayber (and/or Berry) thought was wrong with the way the agriculture industry was going. Michele remarked once that sometimes in the book it seemed as though Berry stepped in front of the mic rather than Jayber, and that seemed to be the case especially here. I don’t think he was saying that farmers should never have bought tractors and should have continued to use mules, but he points out a number of problems with the industrialization of the farm and the difference between using the land and using up the land.
One oddity in the book is that Jayber falls in love with a woman he can never have, because she is married. He never crosses any lines, mainly because he realizes that if she had that kind of a relationship with him, it would fundamentally change who she was. But he loves her from afar and helps her out when he can.
One nice article I came across posited that it was, in fact, Jayber’s love for Mattie that “converted” him from being “so independent that he doesn’t fully know his place, doesn’t know the people in it, and doesn’t love them as he ought. What’s more, it has made him, like Troy, a danger to that place due to his refusal to give himself to it while taking a great deal from it.”
The love Jayber learns to practice is an extremely physical love grounded in practical acts of devotion that sometimes by their very nature require that he not do things he deeply desires to do. Learning to love Port William and the people in it did not consist of an emotional attachment to it or in being authentic about his feelings toward it. It meant disciplining himself in such a way that promoted the health and life of Port William.
This reminded me of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities in the sense that his pure but unrequited love for Lucie changed him into one of the greatest examples of Biblical love in literature. Another recent find, Suffering Unto Salvation, compares Jayber’s love for Mattie to Dante’s for Beatrice in Commedia, and demonstrates effectively how romantic love can waken and feed spiritual love.
One of themes in Jayber Crow is that of belonging. From what Michele called his “unnaming” at the orphanage, until some time after he got back to Port William, he didn’t have a sense of belonging anywhere or to anyone. Even once he claimed Port William as his own, he still held himself somewhat aloof from it, remaining “sort of bystander a lot longer than I remained a stranger” – maybe because he was a classic introvert, maybe due to habits and how he grew up. But one thing that stood out to me was that people who seem to be on the fringes of a community can sometimes paradoxically be the ones who most fiercely care about it. Michele shared an article recommending Jayber as a study for pastors. I don’t know that I would go that far, both because of his theological oddities and because he did hold himself back from people, but in his caring of the community and most of the individuals in it, he’s a good example.
He mentioned throughout the novel the thought that he should “make something of himself,” until he finally comes to accept his place in the community, and that compulsion goes away. This seems to be a nod to what his professor told him, that what we’re “called” to may not be “the” ministry, but caring for those under our influence in the best way we know how is a calling and ministry itself (something I’ve ascended the soapbox for before).
I’ve thought about writing a separate post dealing with Jayber’s theological issues. He does admit having “been in the dark wood of error many times,” but that doesn’t include the errors he doesn’t admit to. I don’t know if these are also Berry’s. Maybe I still will do that at some point, but suffice it to say that I had problems with that aspect of the book, though occasionally he would express something I agreed with, like “The Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen” (p. 157). One beautiful passage after Athey died mentioned heaven as “an unimaginable thought of something I could almost imagine, of a sound I could not imagine but could almost hear. I don’t speak of this because I ‘know’ it. What I know is that shout of limitless joy, love unbound at last, our only native tongue” (p. 268).
I was also dismayed by a smattering of bad language, a few vulgar references, and Jayber’s sexual activities in another town with “certain women I had encountered out in the great world [who] would not be available unless paid” and a longer-term intimate relationship with one woman (not described explicitly but referred to). I thought it odd that Jayber’s religious feelings never touched his sexual activities: it’s his love for Mattie that causes a change in that department. Even Bernie, his closest friend, has a “might as well be wife” and a son with her.
But otherwise I thought Berry’s writing was rich, especially the drawing of his characters that I feel I know better than my own neighbors, the laying out of the story, his descriptiveness, and his phrasing, some of it wry, some of it almost lyrical. Some passages just made you stop, sit, and think for a while. Some of my favorite lines in the book:
Aunt Beulah could hear the dust moats collide in a sunbeam (p. 173).
I have books to read, and much to sit and watch. I try not to let good things go by unnoticed.
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.
After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down.
If the devil doesn’t exist… how do you explain that some people are a lot worse than they’re smart enough to be?
He never complained. He seemed to have no instinct for the making much of oneself that complaining requires.
[After Troy’s son died in Viet Nam] It seemed for a while that Troy had been almost unmade by his grief, but then, having nobody else to be, he became himself again and continued on (p. 293).
We discussed for a while at Michele’s place the thought in that last quote, that sometimes we need to let the circumstances of life “unmake” us in order to effect change instead of just going back to what we were before.
It was uncanny that the book intersected my own life at points. I was in the section where Jayber is trying to cross a flooded river to get back to Port William when my own loved ones were experiencing flooding in TX (that was almost too intense to take in at that time). When he discusses change after having to close down his shop, we were just embarking on a couple of major changes in our family. And not long after he expressed trouble with the idea or war conflicting with Jesus’ command to love our enemies, I came across a lengthy section dealing with that very issue in Love in Hard Places by D. A. Carson.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Paul Michael. His voice will forever be Jayber’s voice to me. I also checked out the hardback copy from the library both to facilitate the discussions at Michele’s by being able to review the section under discussion each week and just to go over some things again myself.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this along with Michele and others – I gleaned so much more from it than I would have alone. It was fun to toss around ideas in the comments there. Michele once described Jayber as an “odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.” I think that pretty well sums him up! Sometimes maddening, sometimes endearing, often insightful, his story was a thought-provoking read.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)