Review: Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second Wendell Berry book I've read, the first being "That Distant Land." I enjoy the change of pace from theological and cultural blogs or books to "going home" to a place called Port William.

In this installment, Jonah Crow, an orphan who leaves the sleepy riverside village at an early age, answers the call to return and let Port William define him. He self-consciously rejects making something of himself, allowing instead the community into his living room-slash-barber shop. The folks even give him his name - Jayber.

Berry is a man on a crusade against abstraction, independence from community and land, dependence on debt, modernism and machines. Troy Chatham and Cecilia Overhold are the symbols of this.

Burley Coulter, Athey Keith, Mattie Chatham and Jayber himself are the opposite: respecting the land, not keeping economic accounts with neighbors, saving and enjoying the fruit of the land.

Berry conveys community, comedy and character well. He uses comedy sparingly, and it grows out of character of the people more than pure funny-ness. The vehicle to convey this is story. Endearing, tragic, by-the-way stories of hunts, conversation, and death. You feel like you are there and know these people as your own.

Sometimes his community observations start to ramble and the insightfulness into human psychology or interaction turns to psychobabble. But not too often.

Berry is confused as a theologian. He says he isn't a quaker but he really is. The Gospels are a higher authority than the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures generally cannot be trusted precisely because of what they say. The church is a false community to the true one of the town. He avoids standard definitions of faith and repentance. The community and land are the ultimate point of reference - not God. It is the typical and tired mainline protestant liberalism, not worthy of his writing gifts.

Also tired and somewhat typical these days is the agrarianism of Berry. He makes some excellent points about vacationers speeding down the river, rushing to relax and never doing so. Yet can it really be said that plowing with mules is more holy than with tractors? Berry as much as says it. Does moving to town make you a shallow and incomplete person? Berry as much as says it. There are important principles that he is getting at - things we have lost about ourselves and being human. But their recovery is not necessarily tied to dirt. Berry is something of a transcendentalist in this regard. The soil and earth - nature - really has a transformative power upon us in this line of thinking. It is part of our identity because man and nature were made for each other and belong together.

Berry only partly succeeds in putting concrete people before abstractions. He is on such a crusade against certain abstract virtues and for others, that the people symbolize things. I enjoyed the parallel episodes at the beginning and end. Jayber is laying on the ground in the woods both times and a woman comes to him. (I wonder if Adam, Lilith and Eve were meant.) The first time it is a woman who despises the community and chases all the men up a tree. The second time it is a woman who loves the earth and people, has put up with a proud, heavily indebted, agribusiness husband, and remained joyous. They spend holy (undefiled) time together in the woods, simply enjoying creation. Perhaps walking in the garden in the cool of the day. At the end the woods are not needed - the communion of holy souls suffices.

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