Friday, November 15, 2013

Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow”

A barbershop in a small town is less about the cutting of hair and more about community, one of those places where people (usually men) congregate to talk, observe, and plan hunting trips. Or that’s what barbershops used to be.

And “used to be” is what is at the heart of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, originally published in 2000. Jayber Crow is a barber in the town of Port William, Kentucky, the place around which so many of Berry’s stories and novels center. Port William is a “used to be” place, a town in decline as economics and what we consider progress passes it by, its life gradually siphoned away.

Jayber is telling his story, and the town’s story, from the perspective of old age. He was left orphaned at a very young age by his parents succumbing to influenza; he’s taken in by an elderly couple, and it is there that he begins to fall in love with the place he lives in. Orphaned again after their deaths, he’s sent to an orphanage and a bible college. And while he should have ended up in ministry or working in a city, he doesn’t. The pull toward the place of his youth is too strong. Along the way he’s picked up barbering skills, and so he returns to Port William. And people remember him, remember the orphaned boy.

When he’s telling his story, he’s an old man, retired from barbering, officially at least. The state regulatory authorities have cited his shop for numerous violations, even if it’s in the same place and Jayber doing the same things he’s done for almost half a century. But he tells his story, his story of community and place and people – and the woman he falls in love with, the woman he cannot have because to do so would violate all of what place and community are about. He never speaks of his love, but, in a small town, some things people just know.

The novel encompasses most if not all of Berry’s beliefs and philosophy about land, agriculture, progress (including interstate highways), faith, and community. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story would have degenerated into ideological diatribe. In Berry’s hands, it doesn’t. He maintains a tight control, even over what he most wants to say.

Jayber Crow is a novel about many things, and about one thing, the idea that place, history, and memory are what bind people to each other, and to loosen those binds is to unravel something much larger that a small town. It is also a novel of love and redemption, and how redemption is inseparable from place and community. 


nance.mdr said...

sounds like a hug inside someone's warm coat...

Megan Willome said...

This was the first of Berry's Port Williams novels that I read (I went on to read them all and the short story collections on Port William). It's an incredible story. If you read all of Berry's fiction, you get to know the characters from multiple sides. He tells the same story in different books using different points of view. Parts of the story are heartbreaking, and it's so worth it.

S. Etole said...

Another one for my ever-growing list.