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Book of the Week: Jayber Crow

Title: Jayber Crow
Author: Wendell Berry
Publisher: Counterpoint
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Quick Thoughts:
I first experienced Wendell Berry’s great novel, Jayber Crow, while in high school. A story about a small agrarian Kentucky community and the people by whom it is inhabited, it immediately struck a resounding chord within me. The characters became real: their struggles became mine, their joys became triumphs for me as well. And as I read it over and over again I always find myself equally as enthralled as I was then. Jayber Crow speaks to me on a spiritual level, an intellectual level, and an emotional level. I might go so far as to call it the best American novel of the last 100 years.

It is the tale, in memoir fashion, of Jayber Crow. Twice orphaned as a boy, Jayber allows us to join him on the journey that is his life, a journey which takes him across flooded rivers and peaceful fields, that throws him into the fire that is love and the waters that are change. His life, like every life, is a tale of comings and goings, of beginnings and endings; it is the story of a man who follows the road laid in front of him and endures the subsequent consequences, usually with grace.

Should you join Jayber Crow on his journey you will come to feel as he feels: you will love what he loves, you will hurt when he hurts. You will be reminded that to love is to open yourself up to hurt, but you will be reassured that to love is also to open yourself up to all the wonders that heaven can offer an earthly being. As you read, Jayber’s friends will become your friends, and Jayber’s work will become your work. Jayber Crow will become as a friend and you will learn to love him.

The story takes place in Port William, Kentucky, a fictional place with a history as detailed as that of Middle Earth (minus the Elvin languages). Jayber Crow is the towns barber and so is at the heart of her society. As people wander in and out of his shop, with clean cuts and clean faces, we learn, over the years, of the town and the people. We help him as he cuts and shaves and lathers and crops. We meet the people he works for and we watch them die. We hear of their work and we feel it when they fail. We become citizens of that little Kentucky town. We become a part of her history, and she becomes as important to us and we will soon be to her. She will become a fixture in our imaginations and so there she will exist. When the last page has been turned and the cover has been closed she will still exist in our imaginations and so the history that matters so to Jayber Crow, and to Mr. Berry, will live on.

Berry writes in tribute to the everyman and his style and descriptive abilities are beautiful and flowing; his words float like a cool breeze in a quiet wood. They carry the beauty of his subjects with all the respect they deserve. And Mr. Berry will draw you in. You will wish you never had to say good bye to that small Kentucky town. But the glory of the book is in its final chapter.

Returning once again to the Port William membership, Berry has written his best novel yet, a book certain to confirm his reputation as one of America’s finest novelists. From the simple setting of his own barber shop, Jayber Crow, orphan, seminarian, and native of Port William, recalls his life and the life of his community as it spends itself in the middle of the twentieth century. Surrounded by his friends and neighbors, he is both participant and witness as the community attempts to transcend its own decline. And meanwhile Jayber learns the art of devotion and that a faithful love is its own reward.

The following is an excerpt from the book:
When I got out to middle of the span, I stopped and looked upstream over the rail. A strengthless, shapeless cloud of light that in the daytime would have seemed a shadow hovered over the river. Without trying exactly to see anything, but sort of letting myself see, I could make out the troubled surface of the water and the shapes of things moving swiftly down- great rafts of drift, barrels, bottles, saw logs, whole trees, pieces of furniture. I even saw what looked to be the gable of a house, with what might have been a car perched on top. Everything came turning in the currents, into sight and then out of sight almost faster than I could believe. Along what had been the shores I could see the trees shaking and battering their limbs together. And the waves and swirls of the water caught the human lights of the town and flung them hither and yon.

And this is what it was like- the words were just right there in my mind, and I knew they were true: the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. Im not sure I can tell you what was happening to me then, or that I know even now. At the time I surely wasnt trying to tell myself. But after all my years of reading in that book and hearing it read and believing and disbelieving it, I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning- not just of the book, but of the world- all the rest was yet to come. I felt knowledge crawl over my skin.

About the author:
Wendell Berry’s much admired works include Another Turn of the Crank, The Unsettling of America, The Memory of Old Jack, Life is a Miracle, and Hannah Coulter. Winner of a Gugenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Foundation Award for nonfiction, he lives and farms in his native Kentucky with his wife, Tanya Berry, near their children and grandchildren.

What’s Being Said:
“Jayber Crow belongs to the small company of truly remarkable characters in the American novel…”
— The Bloomsbury Review

“Read [him] with pencil in hand, make notes and hope that somehow our country and the world will soon come to see the truth that is told here.”
New York Times Book Review

“Berry is a justly celebrated poet, which is reflected in his prose: dense without being overrich, stunning in its philosophical clarity, and sparkling with well-chosen particulars and the language of a region that delights in words…this is the kind of true love that scrapes at the heart and never goes away…”
–Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Vintage Berry, an elegiac tribute to the dignity and grace of ordinary people rising up human in an ever-more-impersonal world. It’s about the redemptive power of love and community. And it’s a masterpiece.”
–Chicago Tribune

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