When acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released his 1985 masterpiece Ran, critics noted that the 75-year-old filmmaker brought the wisdom and disappointment of age to his adaptation of King Lear. In a similar vein, Kentucky writer Wendell Berry has crafted a triumphant capstone to his decades-long career. Jayber Crow is a thoughtful and nostalgic look at the 20th century as it affected the inhabitants of a tiny Kentucky river town.
Berry has written about the community of Port William throughout his work. This latest novel is the autobiography of the town's barber, who has lived among the community for half a century, but grew up in an orphanage. As he recounts the events of his life, from his childhood at the close of World War I through the Depression and several other wars, to his retirement, the book invokes images of the wracking changes this country has undergone.
Jayber's observations don't just linger on historic events. An intimate observer of the community yet at times an outsider, Jayber keenly observes the nuances and follies of the community and its membership. An early stint at a theological seminary ends when Jayber is shaken by doubt. Although Jayber questions doctrine, he never abandons faith. He realizes that his calling is to be the barber and in many ways, the minister to his beloved community. But Jayber remains haunted by the question that caused him to reject the seminary: If Christ commanded people to love one another, why do they choose hate so often? For Jayber, revelation sometimes comes while trudging through a dark, cold, stormy night. In one memorable sequence, Jayber journeys to witness the havoc wrought by the 1937 flood. Crossing a shaky bridge, nearly overwhelmed by a runaway river, he realizes he needs to abandon his destination of Louisville in favor of Port William. Viewed from Jayber's barber shop, most of the events of the century, from the construction of the interstate highway system to the Vietnam War, have little to do with love or even the notions of mutual benefit that bind a community. Too, some of Port William's residents are portraits of self-importance and even brutality. Even Jayber admits he fails to love everyone, although in retrospect he discovers he can feel compassion and pity for most. And most of the town's inhabitants shine with mutual love, respect, and charity. In particular, there is the woman for whom Jayber bears a bright and unrequited love, and on whose behalf he swears a unique and secret oath. In Jayber Crow, Berry mourns the destruction of community wrought by forces like television and the emphasis on getting ahead. Where once family farmers traded their produce for goods at the local market, they're now reduced to consumers whose only welcome contribution is cash. Berry's brilliance is that the reader joins him in lamenting the town's loss of innocence, while taking hope in the strength that love and community can bring.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis. Like Jayber Crow, he grew up in Kentucky.