The house where I grew up is gone, and I haven’t returned to pay homage to the empty space. For me, home — the place of belonging and permanence — is this country hill which has created in me a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of place. Expecting to live solitary and transient, I have been amazed to find that I’m content in a long-term zip code, but, as usual, I’m just catching up with what God has been doing all along. He has always worked within a context of place, choosing a backwater Palestinian setting as ground zero for His arrival and as the backdrop for His earthly ministry. The incarnation brought dignity to the mortal body and to the notion of occupying a particular time and a beloved space.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is a book about a man, but it is also a book about a place. Chapter 1 introduces Jayber as the barber in Port William, and then goes on to introduce the reader to the town he called home, employing six vignettes which feature various members of the Port William Membership.
Somehow, throughout the book, Jayber manages to sidestep the spotlight and to relate his tale through the observations of others. However, he describes Port William as a place that “repaid watching,” (5) and clearly, Jayber saw plenty through his barbershop window. It’s interesting that Berry makes his introductions in this order: (1) Port William culminating in the first mention of Mattie Keith; (2) Jayber’s early years; (3) the Kentucky River which, we will see later, is so active in the plot that it nearly becomes a character in the story.
This is as good a place as any to address Wendell Berry’s curmudgeonly preface to Jayber Crow:
Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”
This makes me smile, but you will recall (if you participated in the book discussion group around Till We Have Faces) how we acknowledged that Orual and her associates provided a wealth of material to deepen our understanding of God and His ways. However, C.S. Lewis was primarily a story teller, and the story superseded all the themes and character analysis we discussed. So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.
If there is really such a thing as a “fictional memoir,” William Berry has mastered the craft. Through Jayber’s musings, we will explore themes such as vocation and calling; the blessings and bane of change; the idea of belonging; and the unfolding of time in a particular place. Writing from the perspective of 72 years of life, Jayber ponders the lay of the land:
“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory. Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever. And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”
What Are Your Thoughts?
I hope that you are already beginning to fall in love with the people of Port William. Have you noticed how Jayber describes in elaborate detail the characters’ background, temperament, and manner of living? Some of these individuals will appear later in the story (or in other books that Berry has written about the Port William Membership), but some of them never appear again. Even so, Berry has given gratuitous attention to them, like that of a painter to one tree in a landscape of forest.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jayber himself. I’ve never had a brother, but I think I love Jayber the way one would love an odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.
I hesitate to mention this at the outset, but I want to discuss it when it comes up, so I’ll front-load an observation from this read-through of Jayber. Wendell Berry, in addition to being a poet and stunning author of fiction, is a farmer, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic. I noticed several incidents in which Jayber’s monologues sounded as if maybe Wendell had jumped in front of the microphone for few paragraphs. Not yet. But bear this in mind as you read on. I’m wondering . . . is it just my imagination, or do you notice it as well?
One of the reasons I have called Jayber my favorite fictional theologian is his ability to make observations about the faith which sound like an outsider and yet to be profoundly orthodox on so many points. I’m hoping for some lively discussion on the state of Jayber’s eternal soul, but listen to this insight on God as Father from later on in the book:
“I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply: the love, the compassion, the taking of offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death . . . Divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world. Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death.”
And so . . . back to incarnation once again.
What are your thoughts on barber chair theology?
Is there a place in your history and memory that anchors you in the way Port William anchored Jayber?
Let’s Get Started
I would love to hear your thoughts as we read. If you do not blog, just share your insights directly to the comments, but if you have a blog, I hope that you will write a piece or two (or a post about each section!) and then share them here by copying the URL of the post into the comments section below. It will be fun — and enlightening — to learn from each other’s insights.
Don’t feel as if you need to share earth-shattering observations. Just write about what impressed you in the section we are reading. If something puzzled you, pose your questions to the group. Let’s commit to reading the book and learning from it in community!
I’ll be here next Thursday (September 14) having read Chapters 4-6. I’ll share a summary to get us started, mention some of my insights, and then throw the door wide open for your input.
How do you participate?
Simply get a copy of the book and read along. You don’t need to register or commit to anything other than just reading the book!
In the meantime, are you planning to read with us?
Will this be your first time through one of Wendell Berry’s books or are you a repeat reader?
What else have you read by Berry? Do you have a favorite?
Where are you, who are you, and what do you love?
Do you plan to blog about your impressions?
Let’s begin to get acquainted in the comments below!
And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:
Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 7………………..CHAPTERS 1-3
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32
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