Friday, January 08, 2010

Forty-eight Hours, a Life

(reflection on Wendell Berry's ANDY CATLETT: Early Travels, a novel. Published in paperback by Counterpoint, 2006.)

Is it familiarity that makes each succeeding book by Wendell Berry seem better than the one before? This one, ANDY CATLETT: Early Travels, is much shorter than the others, and much more highly compressed in time. Yet it's told from the perspective of a much older man who has outlived every other character in the story, so the longview is here, too. The rich texture of the story makes up for the plainness of the plot.

The plot is this simple: ten year old Andy Catlett packs some clothes, a book, and a toothbrush, and travels ten miles by bus to visit his two sets of grandparents in the tiny Kentucky town of Port William. Over the course of forty-eight hours, he does what a grandson always does: He hangs around the old folks, eats, and sleeps. That's it.

But it's late December 1943, the Great Depression lingering, the Good Guys making no apparent headway against the Axis. Andy's uncle won't survive the year at war, widowing Andy's beloved young aunt Hannah. War time rationing, which preferred large businesses, has already begun to make people dependent on processed foods. Taxation and debt are making formerly independent farmers dependent on loans.

Sometimes, Berry isolates a moment that takes his narrator backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, as when young Andy watches his grandmother cutting the crust for a pie in winter, and the narrator conflates that with a pie she made the following summer, tears streaming, when news of her son's death reached the farm (35).

There's explicit reference to PARADISE LOST, and it's clear that Port William, especially in this tenth year of Andy Catlett's perceptions of it, is a paradise on the verge. Andy lives in two worlds: Hargrave, a medium - sized town with ambitions to be a bigger part of the wider World, and Port William, content to be concerned only with itself and its own. One will "consume" the other (17) in the years after the war.

The sadness of this doesn't intrude, but endows homely sights with a numinous glow of gratitude: "The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given...(p. 120)."

1 comment:

Susan said...

Yet another Wendell Berry added to my "need to read' list. Especially since I remember Andy as the narrator of many, if not all of the 'That Distant Land" stories-- at least i inferred he was the narrator.