Monday, June 19, 2006

Jayber Crow: A Novel by Wendell Berry

I try not to let good things go by unnoticed. Jayber Crow, page 323

Jayber Crow is the third work of fiction and sixth book by Wendell Berry that I have read in the past year and a half. I have just scratched the surface, as Berry has written dozens of books, including novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. The fiction is mostly set near the rural community of Port William, Kentucky and includes a recurring cast of characters, drawing obvious comparisons to the Mississippi fiction of William Faulkner. Luckily for readers, Berry is easier to read than Faulkner.

Jayber Crow could also draw some comparisons to the novels of Charles Dickens. The parents of Jonah Crow die when he is quite young, so he goes to live with his great aunt and uncle, who die several years later. Jonah enters an orphanage (where he sometimes helps the barber as one of his jobs) and stays until he can escape with a scholarship to a college for clergy. Deciding he is unsuited to the ministry, he leaves college to seek a life in Lexington, where he starts cutting hair. Eventually he decides to return to the community of his birth, where he takes over an abandoned barbershop. The locals begin to call him Jaybird and then Jayber. Like the youth in Dickens novels, at several points in the story the kindness of benefactors saves Jonah from poverty and despair.

Like Dickens, Berry has a wonderful sense for character names. My favorites include Brother Whitespade, Ben Fewclothes, Cecelia Overhold, Put Woolforke, and Julie Smallwood. These and the other rural citizens in Jayber Crow share equally in the comedy and tragedy of community life.

My favorite part of the book starts on page 302. At the invitation of Burley Coulter, Jayber moves into a camp house at Billy Landing. The description of the house, the river, the woods, and the garden makes me wish to live in the woods. I also like the economy of Jayber's life and the rising of the "underground barbershop."

In telling his own story, Jayber tells about his friends, the change in rural life brought about by "the Economy and the War," and the woman he loves but never marries. Jayber Crow is a rich novel that should interest many readers.

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow: A Novel. New York: CounterPoint, 2000. ISBN 1582430292


Anonymous said...

Oh, Wendell Berry. I'm SO glad you've found Wendell Berry. His novels are first-rate, but have you read his essays? They are unbelievable. You've got to read them at least three times to get everything out of them, they're so full of good stuff.

ricklibrarian said...

I read one or two long time ago when I subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly. I have a copy of Home Economics at home right now, but I have not started reading.

Nan said...

Because of the recurring characters, is there a particular order in which his fiction books should be read?

ricklibrarian said...

You can come into the stories at any point as they all stand on their own. It is sort of like learning about the folks in your community. It can be complicated and viewpoints may vary. Enjoy.