Saturday, November 21, 2009

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

363 pages
Published 2000
By Counter Point
Washington, DC

I like to think of myself as a well-read person, that is to say I read a lot of books and what I read tends to be from a variety of topics, genres, and eras, but I also realize that I have not reached the peak of literacy. There is always something else I should be reading or want to read, but I think it's this way for everyone. Reading is a life long journey.

Most recently, my reading journey brought me to Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry; a book that had it not been for the ladies in my book club, I probably would never read. It just wouldn't have crossed my reading radar.

The Plot:
"From the simple setting of his own barber shop, Jayber Crow, orphan, seminarian, and native of Port William, recalls his life and the life of his community as it spends itself in the middle of the twentieth century. Surrounded by his friends and neighbors, he is both participant and witness as the community attempts to transcend its own decline. And meanwhile Jayber learns the art of devotion and that a faithful love is its own reward." (Summary from B&N)

My Thoughts:
For starters, I found Jayber Crow an interesting story concept. It's always fascinating to me to hear how life was different for the previous generations. The character of Jayber (a.k.a "Jonah", a.k.a. "J") was born a few years prior to my own grandfather. And while my grandfather has spent his lifetime entirely in the northern part of the United States, there are a few similarities in what he saw and experienced and those that Jayber sees and experiences in the south (rural Kentucky). This aspect of the novel was definitely interesting to me.

But for those readers looking for an exciting and action packed tale, look elsewhere. Jayber Crow is a coming-of-age story that begins with a young boy and ends with an elderly man. It is told in the first person and has a lot of disjointed memories mixed in with description and dialogue.

For the most part I can't say that I liked Jayber Crow, I just never "clicked" with the characters of the story, which was a little disappointing. Throughout the story I felt as if Jayber just kind of floated on by, waiting and watching as the world changed around him, but doing little with his own life. At one point in the story Jayber finds true love, but it doesn't end in a "happily ever after" as some readers might hope. Throughout his lifetime, and in turn the novel, Jayber searches for answers to deep questions, questions about God and life and love. Jayber seems to be searching for heaven on earth in the people he knows, but in the end finds more of a hell than anything like a paradise, and by the end of the story many of the answers to his questions seem to have alluded him forever. I found this aspect of the novel not so much irritating or thought provoking as it was depressing.

The one aspect I did enjoy was Wendell Berry's writing style. It was at times very easy to read and many passages were quote worthy. I posted two in recent Tuesday Teasers, which can be read here and here. Another good quote is:
"So now maybe you can imagine it: the moon hanging all alone out in the sky, its light pouring down over everything and filling the valley, and under the moonlight the woods, making a darkness, and within the darkness a little room of firelight, and within the firelight several men talking, some standing, some sitting on stools of piled rocks or on logs, some sitting or squatting or kneeling around a spot swept clear of leaves where they were playing cards, and all around you could hear the whippoorwills." (Chapter 9, page 111)

While I may have a mixed opinion of Jayber Crow, it is considered by some literary critics as an excellent example of Southern Agrarian writing. Until reading this book I'd only heard the term "Southern Agrarian" once or twice before and I had no idea what it meant. (Perhaps I'm not as well-read as I like to think!) For those of you, who like me, are not familiar with Southern Agrarianism, it is a type of philosophy and lifestyle founded during the early-mid 20th century by a group of Southern authors. Their views included opposition to any form of modernity or technology that would promote urbanism and industrialism and eventually lead to the end of Southern traditions and "the way things are." Because this is a review of a novel and not a review of the philosophy I will only say that in reading Jayber Crow I agreed with a few small points, but for the most part I find the Southern Agrarian philosophy to be unrealistic and impractical in the 21st century.

On a scale of 1-5, 1 being horrible and 5 being excellent I would rate Jayber Crow a 2.5. It was an "ok" read, but not intriguing enough to make me want to read more of Berry's novels. If you're still interested in reading I'd advise you borrow (as I did) versus buy this novel, at least until you know if you want to own a copy. As it is a recent publication (within the last decade) and a somewhat popular author you shouldn't have too much trouble finding a copy at your local public library.


BubblesandMoney said...

My favorite one in this group of Wendell Berry's is Hannah Coulter. It is amazing. I don't think you will be disappointed. I would give it a 5 out of 5.

I love your blog. You always give me good things to put on my wish list. Thank you for the time you spend doing this.

Anonymous said...

Great review.

My favorite of Berry's novels is The Memory of Old Jack. A Place On Earth is good too. Both of these are among his earlier novels; the later ones have more of a didactic edge, in my opinion.

I've given you an award over at my blog.

Janet@Across the Page

DebD said...

Jaber Crow was my first Berry novel as well and I would also rate it a 2.5... I did try to read another one (can't remember the name) and I didn't find it any more engaging. A few people who, absolutely love Berry, recommend that I try one of of his collections of essays.

(coming over from Janet's blog - congrats on the award).

GretchenJoanna said...

I just visited your blog for the first time when I saw that Janet had given you the Super Scribbler Award. Congratulations!
Thanks for such a thorough review of Jayber Crow. Like Janet, I enjoyed Old Jack and A Place on Earth, but I'd like to read more.

GretchenJoanna said...

Oh, I meant to ask, is that your own quote, "A Library is a Hospital for the Mind" ? I like it.

S. Mehrens said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I've heard that Berry's essays are better and GretchenJoanna, Hannah Coulter was recommended to me by another gal in the book club. She said she preferred it to Jayber Crow too. I'll have to keep it in mind.

Also, no I didn't come up with the quote. It is unknown where the quote came from, but I liked it as books are so soothing to my own mind when I have a crazy life. Thanks for stopping by!

S. Mehrens said...

Er, I mean BubblesandMoney - thanks for the tip about HC, see my previous comment, it was meant for you! :)