Sunday, November 11, 2012

Jayber Crow: One of the Weirder Book Reviews You’ll Read

So for over a year now my friend Suzanne has been telling me to read Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. I started it once, but just wasn’t ready for a book about a barber, sorry. And that was after I had read—and adored—Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter. So what’s the issue, WB, Jayber is longer? I guess. But you read long books. I dunno.

Jayber Crow is the barber in Port William, a small river town in Kentucky the “membership” of which is the subject of most of Berry’s life’s work. Still ticking, nearing eighty, Berry has written something like eight novels and thirty-something stories on the “Port William membership.” His subject is life in a pre-agribusiness American farming community, with the emphasis on community. It’s Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County without the unreadably long sentences, and with the presence of God.

Jayber is a bachelor who calls himself an “ineligible” bachelor. At first this means that, being a barber in such a small town, and running his shop more as a drop-in center for the men of Port William and less as a going concern, Jayber can’t afford not being a bachelor. The last barber in town couldn’t keep his family in shoe leather, and so left.

But Jayber renders himself further ineligible by carrying a torch for a good woman, née Mattie Keith, married to a bad man, Troy Chatham, and doing so for most of his adult life. One of the many brilliancies of Jayber Crow is that Troy is a proud, ambitious, ungrateful bastard who believes that agribusiness is America’s farming future, and so becomes a sort of one-man wrecking crew to the economy and culture of Port William, which Berry clearly treasures and which we all could use a bit more of.

So here’s the weird part, here’s my “book review”:

Katie and I are spending the weekend in Vermont at a home where we sleep in twin beds. Usually we sleep in a double bed. This may be TMI to you, but it sets up my story.

Yesterday I read much of the day before and after a vigil mass and a supper of first-class Thai food. Back in front of the fire, about 10 p.m., my eyelids began drooping near the end of the penultimate chapter. Try as I might, I could not keep my body awake long enough to finish the book.

So I fell asleep with about fifteen pages left on the iPhone against my chest. I woke up twice in the middle of the night and read five pages each before dozing again, which left five pages to go when I woke up a third time at 5:15 a.m. I heard Katie stirring and asked if she was awake. She was.

I read the last five pages to myself in the dark. When I came to the final beautiful sentence, I said, “Oh, my God!”

With concern audible in her voice, Katie said, “What?”

“I just finished the book.”

Then, because I know she likes it when I read aloud to her, I gave her a summary of the action leading up to the last chapter, then read her the last four pages or so. I began weeping one page from the finish and had to gather my voice twice before reaching the end. Then I clicked off my iPhone, the room went dark again, and I sniffled and sighed.

“Here,” Katie said, knowing what I was feeling and feeling it too and reaching out her hand across the gulf between our beds in the dark. I took her hand and held it for ten minutes or so. I thought of my mother reaching out and touching my father as the dark descended on him on his deathbed.

Then I thought of the woman I once carried a torch for. For two years (long story), I persisted in loving her though there seemed to be no chance we would ever get together. Finally, there was. That woman was Katie, my wife now these twenty-eight years.

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