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. . For thirty-nine years Wendell Berry has brought us stories from the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. The latest, Jayber Crow, is the story of a man's love for his community and his abiding and unrequited love for Mattie Chatham, "a good woman who had too early made one bad mistake. " Sent to an orphanage at the age of ten, Jayber grows up knowing of loneliness and want, and learns how to be a watchful observer of human goodness and frailty. With the flood of 1937 he returns to his native Port William to become the town's barber. Slowly, patiently, the observer becomes participant. "This is a book about Heaven," writes Jayber, "but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell-where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness' sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith...where we must lose everything to know what we have had. "Sounding themes of love and loss, despair and deepest joy, Berry's clear-sighted artistry in depicting the Port William membership will not soon be forgotten.
The questions who
are no doubt useful and occasionally even noble in their place. But for Wendell Berry, whose spare and elegant prose has long testified to the rural American values of thrift and frugality, four interrogatives must seem a waste, when one will do. Where
is the ultimate qualifier, the sine qua non, for both the author and his characters. Place shapes them and defines them; the winding Kentucky River and the gentle curves of the Kentucky hills find an echo in their lilting speech and brusque affections.
Jayber Crow is another story of the Port William membership, the community whose life--and lives--Berry has unfurled over the course of a half dozen novels. Jayber himself is an orphan, lately returned to the town. And his status as barber and bachelor places him simultaneously at its center and on its margins. A born observer, he hears much, watches carefully, and spends 50 years learning its citizens by heart.
They were rememberers, carrying in their living thoughts all the history that such places as Port William ever have. I listened to them with all my ears, and have tried to remember what they said, though from remembering what I remember I know that much is lost. Things went to the grave with them that will never be known again.
Jayber tells the town's stories tenderly. Gently elegiac, the novel charts the tension between an urge to isolation and an impulse to connectivity, writ both small and large. As the 20th century moves inexorably forward, swallowing in great mechanized gulps rural towns governed by agricultural rhythms, Port William turns in upon itself. And as Jayber admits quietly, "Once a fabric is torn, it is apt to keep tearing. It was coming apart. The old integrity had been broken." Integrity, both whole and shattered, is key to the stories of Burley Coulter, Cecelia Overhold, Troy Chatham, and above all, Athey Keith and his daughter Mattie, to whom Jayber pledges his undying and unrequited love.
Berry's prose, so carefully tuned that you never know it is there, carries us into the very heart of the land itself; his exquisitely constructed sentences suggesting the cyclic rhythms of his agrarian world. Jayber Crow resonates with variations played on themes of change, looping transitions from war into peace, winter into spring, browning flood destruction into greening fields, absence into presence, lost into found. --Kelly Flynn