Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wendell Berry's Detective Novel

(Reflections on A WORLD LOST by Wendell Berry, (2008))

Image from Counterpoint Press edition
The framework for Wendell Berry's A WORLD LOST is that of a detective novel. 

Andy Catlett, fictional chronicler of many of Wendell Berry's fictions of Port William, Kentucky, remembers fondly the uncle Andrew for whom he was named, and the afternoon when he learned that Uncle Andrew had been shot to death.  Very young at the time, he accepted the family's line about a disagreement over a job. As an older man, he searches scraps of memory and artifacts to piece together what really happened.

The book hardly proceeds in a linear fashion.  Andy admits that his childhood memories are like the "illuminated capital letters" at the starts of chapters in a children's book -- recalled apart from each other, without supporting detail. 

Now, I read the book a few months ago, and enjoyed it, but I don't remember the answers to Andy's questions.   Who killed Uncle Andrew?  Had he propositioned a man's underage daughter -- or was that just an excuse, or a rumor?  I don't recall.   But then, I rarely do recall the solutions to mystery novels. 

What I do recall is the character of the uncle, and it's clear that he was trouble waiting to happen.  Isn't it Hercule Poirot who says that you find out more about the killing by finding out more about the victim?

Uncle Andrew "overflows" attempts by his well-meaning parents and brother to inhibit him.  Andy recalls with a mixture of shock and pleasure how this uncle "infused with glandular intensity" the seven-year-old boy's shy daydream about a girl.  The boy is bewildered, and yet "pleased to be carried away on the big stream of his laughter."

His uncle "carries uproar with him wherever he goes." Flirtatious, given to excesses of drink, wildly impulsive, he's dangerous.  Once some cocky teenage boys step into the road to force him to stop and offer them a ride, but he simply accelerates, chasing them off the road and then up the bank.

Naturally, a novel that probes death and memory turns into a rumination on mortality.  Like mystery novelist Walter Mozley, Berry tells us through Andy that "life does not begin with itself," and it carries on after life ends: Home is not a place, but "also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day...."

1 comment:

practicingresurrection said...

I read it recently myself and found myself wondering if there is a story like that in the past in Mr. Berry's family. I have read several times that he modelled the character Andy Catlett on himself.