Thursday, March 10, 2011

Not Who You Are, But What You Serve: Two Novels by Wendell Berry

(Reflections on NATHAN COULTER (2008) and MEMORY OF OLD JACK (1974 and 1999) by Wendell Berry.)

Just when I was thinking that the people of Wendell Berry's community of Port William were too noble to be true, along comes this fictional memoir by "Nathan"  (son of Jarrad, nephew of my favorite character Burley).  It's full of people behaving badly, irascibly, cruelly, even dirtily.

The novel begins in a boy's dream of a lion with his Grampa's blue eyes, crouched and roaring outside their family home.  By the end of the novel, the boy is in his teens.  The story in between contains sordid episodes including a long sequence at an ugly carnival side show.  But the action is the way that Uncle Burley and others step up to take care of Nathan when his mother dies and the grief-stricken and angry father Jarrad fall away. The older brother, called "Brother" early on, also withdraws.  This is the Tom Coulter who will perish in the Second World War.   Nathan, we know, will go on to marry Hannah, and thereby hangs another novel.

In fact, I understand that NATHAN COULTER was Berry's first novel, and that the rest of the Port William world formed around it.

MEMORY OF OLD JACK is more complicated.  Like Updike's SEEK MY FACE, and also like a couple of wonderful stories by Berry, this novel moves forward on two tracks.  We follow old Jack Beecham in present time, from his waking in a chair at a window, before sunrise, to his return to that chair at darkness.  As he walks haltingly from the store to the barber shop and through the town that day, his mind wanders from turning point to turning point in his memory, from early memories of men going off to the Civil War onward to the day that his closest family members convince him to retire at a "hotel" in town.  We sometimes see Old Jack through the eyes of  characters who love him: Mat Feltner (second oldest man in the community) and Wheeler Catlett. 

Among Berry's characters, Jack is oldest and far from wisest.  But he comes to learn, by marrying the wrong woman and by mistakes that put him in deep debt, that distinction in life comes "not by what he was or anything that he might become but by what he served."  Berry means, the land, but also the community of those who serve the land.

Berry often links Jack's inner world to the natural one.  As a young man, Jack reins in a powerful horse...
And Jack feels that same checked and conserved abundance in himself, his shoulders pressing againstthe good broadcloth of his suit.  The whole country around him, in fact, is full of it, the abounding of energy and desire...
At church, in the company of girls and young women.
His consciousness hovers and moves now over the congregation, like a bee over a patch of flowers, in search of nectar, alert to what is bright and sweet and open. 
Much later, his fury reflects that of a stream in flash flood, and he recklessly drives his team of mules into the raging water -- a scene that one reads breathlessly.

In his marriage to a woman who shares the beliefs of the prevailing culture that all of civilization should be about acquiring the means to rise above hard work, Jack comes to embody the plight of Port William as a last stand against the engulfing commercial world.

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