Saturday, December 05, 2009

JAYBER CROW, part II: Deep Rivers

Illustration is a detail from the front cover of the book as displayed on

Even before the first page of JAYBER CROW, Berry pays homage to Mark Twain. In a "NOTICE" that parodies Twain's warning at the top of Huckleberry Finn, Berry exiles to a desert island anyone who attempts to "deconstruct or otherwise 'understand'" his novel. Cognizant of the risk, I proceed with my second reflection on it. (See Part I, "More Fun in Port William KY".)

That warning isn't the only nod to Twain, here. Like Huck, Jayber is witness to, and sometime participant in, slapstick pranks and incidents involving a plumber's plunger, a drunk’s confrontation with a truck, a ferry boat on ice, and a blind man's opportunistic dog. Jayber comments that knowledge of a town -- including that of "unauthorized" familial relationships -- comes to a barber the way stray cats come to a barn (94).

The river runs through Berry's novel, as the Mississippi runs through Twain's, becoming something more than a backdrop. Like Huck, Jayber lives his earliest years at a landing on the river. During his travels as a young man, he glimpses a whole house floating in the flooded river, reminiscent of Huck’s encounter with the "house of death.” Unlike Huck, who heads West in the end, Jayber follows the river back to his point of origin, to stay.

Jayber reflects often on the river itself. Is the "river" the water? the ditch in the earth etched by the water? the landscape that the river creates? Doesn’t a river embody time and memory (24)? Finally, Jayber decides that Port William is "a little port for the departure and arrival of souls" (301). The river’s beauty, unaffected by the trashiness of speedboating tourists who are "in an emergency to relax" (331), is that the river "keeps to its way" (310).

There's a theology implicit, here, as in all of Berry's works that I've read. Unlike those other works, there's some explicit theology, too, thanks to Jayber Crow's stint at a preachers’ college, ended when he loses his feeling of being called. "I assumed that since I didn't have the religion of Pigeonville College,” Crow tells us, “I didn't have any religion at all" (68). But a new theology grows on the foundation of the old one, beginning where the Bible does, in a chaos of deep waters and darkness. While the river floods, he feels the longing to return home “rising" in him like the water.

Working his part-time position as sexton to Port William’s little church, Jayber keeps to himself a theology that turns that of the preachers on its head: “They [have] a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works.” He doubts that any of the hearers of those sermons believed what they heard.
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. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children.
The preachers themselves, he observes, would be invited to dinner after their world-condemning sermons, and they would eat good food with “unconsecrated relish” (161). (I should add that Jayber’s theology strikes me as perfectly Episcopalian.)

Jayber’s world has its saints and its devils, too. A central figure in this novel, a sort of Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante, is the girl Mattie Keith, glimpsed through the barber’s window as she walks home from school, often in the company of her popular classmate Troy Chatham. Not just because of jealousy, Troy comes to embody for Jayber everything wrong with the world we live in, everything that pulls Port William apart. Former high school basketball star, Troy “was all show, and he had the conviction, as such people do, that show is the same as substance. He didn’t think he was fooling other people; he had fooled himself” (177). Mattie’s father Athey Keith is set up as his son in law’s opposite: “There was never much room between what he said and what he thought,” and he operates his farm on the principle, “Wherever I look.. I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use.” Troy, enamored of expensive new machinery and agri- business says instead, “Never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle. Use it or borrow against it.” Troy exhausts his credit while he exhausts his father – in – law’s land (179) all in a futile effort to “make something of himself.”

Near the end of his story, Jayber Crow admires the Branch family: “The Branches seemed uninterested in getting somewhere and making something of themselves. What they liked was making something of nearly nothing.”

That strikes me as Jayber’s ideal, and Wendell Berry’s, too. The author has made a world out of nearly nothing, and he has not seen the need to go anywhere else to find stories worth telling.

No comments: