Friday, August 16, 2013

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Fans of Wendell Berry know his favorite themes are the importance of community and the disadvantages of runaway progress. His novel Jayber Crow is no exception. In his gentle, inimitable style Berry takes us through the ups and downs of Port William’s bachelor barber.

Born in 1914 and orphaned at a young age, Jayber Crow is now 72 years old and is looking back on his life.  He begins with early memories of the orphanage where he recalls asking hard questions about faith and getting few satisfying answers.  Even though he abandons Christianity for a time, he can’t get away from feeling that he is “blessed” and even “called”.  Biblical language is sprinkled throughout the book. On returning to Port William he writes, “In one breath I was lost and a stranger, and in the next I was found.”(p. 87)

One reason he scorned religion was because it preached against pleasure.

This religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it.  Those world-condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would be wearing their prettiest clothes... The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries... And when church was over they would go home to heavenly dinners of fried chicken, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher, having foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. (p. 161)

Mattie Chatham is a key character in the book. Although they never marry, Jayber’s love for her causes a dramatic turning point in his life. Through his selfless love for her he learns to love others more deeply and to accept the mysteries of faith that he had previously rejected.

In a moment of musing he writes, It is not a terrible thing to love the world, knowing that the world is always passing and irrecoverable, to be known only in loss. To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain. (p. 329)

It was a bold move for to offer this book selection since there is unchristian behavior throughout; readers of traditional Christian novels may be offended by some profanity, drinking and womanizing.  To top it off, the one  “Christian” in the book is the mean-spirited, unhappy Cecelia Overhold. Average reader beware! But if you want to read a well-written, poignant tale of one man’s search for love and for God, you’ll be touched by Jayber Crow.

1 comment:

Janet said...

Good thoughts! I reread this last year and liked it more the second time around, though the whole Mattie storyline seemed a little odd except as a symbolic device.