Review

Jayber Crow

by Wendell Berry



It's a little disconcerting to review a book that has this notice
following the acknowledgments page:

"Persons attempting to find a 'text' in this book will be
prosecuted; persons attempting to find a 'subtext' in it will be
banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate,
analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise 'understand' it will be exiled
to a desert island in the company only of other explainers."

Somehow, though, this fit in with the little I knew of Wendell
Berry. A quote of his extolling the virtues of growing one's own
food graces a shelf in our local store's produce section. I'd read
a short piece somewhat critical of him because his wife types all
his manuscripts. I knew he had published impassioned defenses of
tobacco farmers. I knew enough to be intrigued.

JAYBER CROW doesn't disappoint. In a market saturated with the
sensational, with sex and violence and the supernatural, this
quiet, reflective novel seems a gift from a world gone by. By the
time you finish it, you may wish it didn't have to go.

Jayber Crow tells us his story from his birth near Port Williams,
Kentucky, early in the 20th century. His natural parents taken by
the flu epidemic of 1918, he was raised by an older childless
couple, who left him again orphaned at age 10. A stint in a church
orphanage soured him on rules and institutions, yet inspired him
enough to attend pre-ministerial college for a couple of
doubt-ridden years. Troubled by his unanswered questions about the
Bible and drawn back to his childhood home, he makes his way after
the flood of 1937 to a barbershop in Port Williams, where he
practices this trade for most of his adult life. He also takes on
grave digging and janitorial services for the local church, most of
whose female members regard him warily because he isn't above a
Saturday night "water" drinking party with the boys. "I loved to
hear what that jug had to say for itself; when it said it was
'good-good-good,' I believed it. Presently I observed that the moon
had become abashed and uncertain of its position out there in the
fathomless sky."

Jayber's troubled faith, his position as a barber, and his
honorable love for an unattainable woman all combine to provide him
(and us) with valuable perspective on the passage of time and the
changes it brings. At the risk of being exiled to an island of
explainers, I couldn't help but see Mattie Chatham as a symbol for
the sustainable, small scale and conservative methods of farming
that began to die out in the 1960s. The graceful Mattie is a
farmer's daughter who marries Troy, a showoff destined to sink
deeper and deeper into debt. Troy himself proves to be, for Jayber,
the ideal challenge to the Biblical injunction to "love thy
neighbor."

For in the end, Jayber is a man of hard-won faith, a faith unique
to himself and his life. When the county inspector invades his
barbershop and finds there is no running hot water (he heats it in
a metal urn over a coal fire), Jayber elects to close his shop and
finish out his days in a modest shack on the river. He still walks
into town for church. "I don't attend altogether for religious
reasons. I feel more religious, in fact, here beside this corrupt
and holy stream."

Did I mention that Berry is a beautiful writer? This quiet and
elegiac book will move you, if you let it.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol (ezn1@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Jayber Crow
by Wendell Berry

  • Publication Date: September 5, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • ISBN-10: 1582430292
  • ISBN-13: 9781582430294