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Jayber Crow (2000)

by Wendell Berry

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1,825449,410 (4.42)46
From the simple setting of his own barber shop, Jayber Crow, orphan, seminarian, and native of Port William, recalls his life and the life of his community as it spends itself in the middle of the twentieth century. Surrounded by his friends and neighbors, he is both participant and witness as the community attempts to transcend its own decline. And meanwhile Jayber learns the art of devotion and that a faithful love is its own reward.… (more)

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Berry has an incredible skill for writing about things we've all felt, but they sound both new and familiar in his prose. Jayber tells his own story about his life, particularly his time as barber in Port William, Kentucky. Through the years he watches dramas unfold from his solitary place. He sees how time changes the community, deals with his own heartbreak, hatred, and struggles with faith. It is a book that flows slowly and should be savored. Nothing big happens and yet all of life is packed within its pages.

"All the world, as a matter of fact, is a mosaic of little places invisible to the powers that be."

“I don't believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.”

“As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.” ( )
  bookworm12 | Dec 20, 2023 |
Life story of Jonah Crow, nicknamed Jayber, barber of the small farming community of Port William, Kentucky, from his birth in 1914 to his life in retirement. He is orphaned at an early age, briefly attends divinity school, and eventually makes his home above his barbershop. He remains a bachelor but cherishes a woman from afar. The narrative follows the intersecting lives of Jayber and the various residents of Port William.

This is a classic celebration of the pastoral life. It is critical of industrialization. Farmer Athey Keith uses traditional farming methods – plowing with mules, rotating crops, and saving funds for emergencies. His son-in-law, Troy Chatham, represents the modern approach to “agribusiness,” borrowing heavily, buying machines, and depleting the land.

Jayber tells his own story, so we are privy to his thoughts. He questions religion and theology, leading to his departure from seminary school, but values faithful devotion and always cares about those around him, even to the point of embracing people he dislikes (not always successfully). The concept of heaven is also explored.

The characters are richly developed. By the end, I felt like they were my neighbors. Jayber’s voice is particularly strong. It felt like an older relative telling me his nostalgic stories. Berry’s writing is lyrical. There are passages that made me want to soak them in and ponder them for a while. The story is chronological, and proceeds at a leisurely pace. Most of the plot describes small-town life, farming, and community connections.

“Maybe you can imagine it: the moon hanging all alone out in the sky, its light pouring down over everything and filling the valley, and under the moonlight the woods, making a darkness, and within the darkness a little room of firelight, and within the firelight several men talking, some standing, some sitting on stools of piled rocks or on logs, some sitting or squatting or kneeling around a spot swept clear of leaves where they were playing cards, and all around you could hear the whippoorwills. Nearly everybody there had a coal oil lantern, most of them unlit to save oil. One of the two or three that were lighted hung from a low limb to illuminate the card game.”

Themes include belonging, independence, dealing with change, and the joys of living a simple life. Berry advocates stewardship of the earth and compassion for its inhabitants. I enjoyed spending time in Port William and found this book delightful.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Before I can tell you how much I loved this book, I must tell you that my father, like Jayber Crow, was a barber in a time when the barber shop was a social place and not a styling salon. I loved this very male place, where I could very rarely slip myself into a corner and listen to old men talk about the weather and the crops and gossip about one another in a friendly and civil way. My father was also a self-taught fiddler and music would often pour from the back room of the shop well into the night. I thought of this place as a crossroads of our community. There was no one that my father did not know and know well.

With this in mind, I was thrilled to meet Jayber Crow, a bachelor barber in Port William, Kentucky, who serves his community with so much more than a haircut and a shave. Wendell Berry opens this man’s life and heart to us and through his interactions with the community in Port William, the lives of his neighbors and friends. The story unfolds, with vignettes sprinkled throughout detailing the events that make up the everyday lives of the entire community. But, most importantly, we meet Jayber, whose boyhood is laced with both tragedy and rescue, and whose bachelorhood is really as peopled with love and attachment as a life can be.

Wendell Berry has a marvelously descriptive and captivating style. It sometimes felt to me as if I were sitting in that barber shop and listening in on the conversation, or on the bank of the river pole in hand, the story unfolded in such a charming and folksy manner. But this book is anything but surface material, there is depth galore and major issues tackled in profound ways.

Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door.
But sometimes a prayer comes that you have not thought to pray, yet suddenly there it is and you pray it. Sometimes you just trustfully and easily pass into the other world of sleep. Sometimes the bird finds that what looks like an opening is an opening, and it flies away. Sometimes the shut door opens and you go through it into the same world you were in before, in which you belong as you did not before.

I could quote dozens of passages that address such issues and do them with a candor and feeling that is seldom encountered. I can see myself re-reading this book someday and finding hidden nuggets of truth and wisdom buried deep beneath the story line that were missed the first time around.

As is often so, I owe a debt of gratitude to The Southern Literary Trail group for introducing me to this remarkable author. I know this will not be the last book I read by Mr. Berry. I wish I had discovered him earlier...but, as Jayber would agree, I am sure, it is better to meet a good man late than to never meet him at all.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Wonderful but sad story of the life of a guy living in the countryside in the United States. Lots of small town details and huge doses of humanity. Much of this life has been lost as mechanization has advanced during this century and during the telling of this fictional town based on the community where the author actually lived. ( )
  Matt_B | May 29, 2022 |
I like this book a lot, but it's hard to summarize what it's about. It's basically a novel about the life of Jaber Crow, starting with when he was a baby, and ending when he was of old age (he didn't exactly say, but at the end of the book he was likely beyond 70 years old.) He was born in the 1910s, so he lived through WWI, the depression, WWII, Vietnam War.... All his life he mostly lived in a rural town in Kentucky, and he witnessed how his home, along with the rest of America, turned away from traditional farming practices. And he really doesn't like it. There were passages and passages where he as the narrator delves into why this is not good for nature or humanity. They are thoughtful passages. Actually throughout the book there are many, many thoughtful passages about Jayber's reflections on faith, on love, on heaven, on economy, on war.... He is a wise, peaceful man of faith.
He holds an unrequited love for a married lady, and this romantic plotline is so drastically different from what would typically appear in romance novels. It's platonic, and not at all self-serving. My favorite part of this arc is the reason he fell in love with Mattie in the first place -- it was because he admired how even though she had a lot of work and worry at home, she was able to be free as a child when playing with her children, "but with a generosity and watchfulness that were anything but childish." "She was just perfectly there with them in her pleasure." I just think it's a sweet reason to fall in love with someone and I admire the values it reflects. ( )
  CathyChou | Mar 11, 2022 |
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Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing...
Virginia Berry


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I never put up a barber pole or a sign or even gave my shop a name.
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.

I had a conscientious objection to making an exception of myself. p. 143
On pretty weekends in the summer...the river is disquieted from morning to night by people resting from their work. This resting involves traveling at great speed...These people are in an emergency to relax. (p. 331)
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From the simple setting of his own barber shop, Jayber Crow, orphan, seminarian, and native of Port William, recalls his life and the life of his community as it spends itself in the middle of the twentieth century. Surrounded by his friends and neighbors, he is both participant and witness as the community attempts to transcend its own decline. And meanwhile Jayber learns the art of devotion and that a faithful love is its own reward.

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