Written by Wendell Berry | Reviewed by Jenn Sauer
Skimming through the front matter of poet, essayist, farmer, environmentalist Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, I encountered the usual: a dedication, acknowledgements… but I was not expecting the page titled NOTICE, which reads:
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. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR
Umm… OK, then. Duly warned, I will endeavor to tread carefully in my… reflection? meditation on? this book that I would never, ever argue is a text. Let the chips fall where they may! And really, a meditation on the novel is probably the best way to attempt to talk about it, as the entire thing reads like a life’s worth of meditations on love, faith, community, the meaning of success, the perils of modernization, and the making of a meaningful life.
The titular Jayber Crow narrates his life story, from his birth in 1914, which granted him “...one day in the world before the beginning of total war”, to his old age in the late 1980s. But Jayber’s story is every bit as much the story of a Kentucky small town’s navigation of the headwinds of the twentieth century–forces Jayber calls “The War” (World Wars I and II, as well as Korea and Vietnam all leave their mark on little Port William, KY) and “The Economy”--which our narrator uses as a shorthand for what he sees as the ever-increasing American obsession with efficiency and profit.
The pace of Berry’s storytelling here mirrors the pace of small-town life–those seeking an action-driven plot should prepare to sit a spell and listen to stories and character sketches that don’t necessarily lead anywhere other than to a deeper feeling of connection between the reader and the good folks of Port William. Jayber also philosophizes a fair bit in passages that feel rather like reading someone’s unedited diary, and I’ll confess to a couple moments of impatience with what felt to me like abstruse wool-gathering. But at the risk of banishment for sounding like an “analyzer”, I think there’s a method to Berry’s down-tempo madness. Slow down! he seems to be saying in these pages. Revel in the ordinary! Think, and then interrogate that thinking. Train your attention on the miracle that is simply living and breathing in community. In the person of Jayber Crow, he shows us the day-to-day reality of dedicating oneself to a simple, reflective life.
The end of the novel packed an emotional wallop that I didn’t anticipate feeling, and I closed this richly imagined, poetic, meandering book somehow nostalgic for a way of life I’ve never experienced. As I sat reflecting on the life journey I had just taken with Jayber Crow, Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” bubbled up in my mind. It's one of my all-time favorites, and it occurred to me that I could imagine Jayber as the author of those lines, which express the same core values as this novel and its author. The novel just gives us more time to sit with those values, to turn them over in our hands and really see them.