Friday, April 6, 2012
Friday's Volume: Jayber Crow
Every now and again I’ll get hold of a book that gets under my skin. That becomes family. That when I turn the last page, I raise it to my lips and kiss its cover and then press it for a period over my heart and mourn its end. That’s what I did with today’s book.
Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. Quite the title given by its author Wendell Berry.
In this rich, pastoral novel, Jaber Crow tells us his story beginning with his birth near Port William, Kentucky in the early 20th century. But after the untimely death of both of his parents in the flu epidemic of 1918, and then his guardians when he was 10, he is sent to an out-of-town church orphanage where he grows up knowing of loneliness and want and soured to rules and institutions. After a stint in pre-ministerial college, Jayber is drawn back to his childhood home where he lands the position of town barber. A born observer, he hears much, watches carefully, and spends the next 50 years learning its citizens by heart. This is the story of a man’s love for his community and his abiding and unrequited love for a woman who has made one bad mistake. He tells their stories (and his) with great tenderness, and in doing so, we come to know these townspeople and care deeply for them. And ever so slowly, we become participants.
Nearing the end of his career as a barber, Jayber writes, “ I came to feel a tenderness for them all. This was something new to me. It gave me a curious pleasure to touch them, to help them in and out of the chair, to shave their weather-toughened old faces. They had known hard use, nearly all of them. You could tell it by their hands, which were shaped by wear and often by the twists and swellings of arthritis. They had used their hands forgetfully, as hooks and pliers and hammers, and in every kind of weather. The backs of their hands showed a network of little scars where they had been cut, nicked, thorn stuck, pinched, punctured, scraped, and burned. Their faces told that they had suffered things they did not talk about. Every one of them had a good knife in his pocket, sharp, the blades whetted narrow and concave, the horn of the handle worn smooth. The oldest ones spoke, like Uncle Othy, the old broad speech of the place; they said “ahrn” and “fahr” and “tard” for “iron” and “fire” and “tired”; they said “yorn” for “yours,” “cheer” for “chair,” “deesh” for “dish,” “dreen” for “drain,” “slide” for “sled,” and “juberous” for “dubious.” I loved to listen to them, for they spoke my native tongue.”
This book is about a love that breaks the barrier of time and of loss that grieves silently. It’s about darkest despair and deepest joy. It is about the tug of war between heaven and hell. About community in its rawest sense. There is much humor and not a little sadness, but despite everything, the author lets us know there is always hope.
If you have never lived in a small town in America, then here is your guide. If you have lived in a rural setting, then expect to find friends within these pages … if not family members. If you have ever loved from afar, ever been rowdy, afraid, lonely, confused or have questions of faith that no one can answer, well then you just might have a friend in Jayber Crow. But beware, our narrator is not a “religious” man, but rather a man of hard-won faith, a faith unique to himself and his life. As he finishes out his time in a modest shack on the river, he still walks into town for church. But even then we hear him saying, “I don’t attend altogether for religious reasons. I feel more religious, in fact, here beside this corrupt and holy stream.” And you will, too, as you sit with him and listen to his stories.
Jayber Crow does not disappoint. In a media inundated with the sensational, with sex and with violence, this novel is a gift. By the time you finish it, you, too, may just wish you didn’t have to let it go. I know I did.
Truly beautiful story. One to be read again and again.