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Book review: "Jayber Crow," by Wendell Berry (Newsday)

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JAYBER CROW: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself, by Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, 363 pp., $25.

By Emily Gordon

A BALDING bachelor, who hears everything from behind his barber's chair, is the eyes and ears of a tiny southern town just before the din of modernity. Wait: A pensive, restless orphan hears God's call -- or thinks he does -- but after asking too many unanswerable questions at the seminary, embarks on a journey toward a very different set of callings. Or how's this? A passionate man shakes with hatred for his rival, who's married to the woman whose love he would die for and who is systematically wrecking the land that sustains them. Also: A gardener lives in a two-room cabin by the river, collecting the pieces of things that drift by after storms and composing small rhymes, and takes his pleasure in lone walks through the unspoiled woods.

All of these -- and many, many more -- are the life stories of Jayber Crow, contained in Wendell Berry's magnificent new novel of the same name. The first thing that Jayber, the narrator (born Jonah, reduced to plain "J." by the orphanage superintendent, nicknamed "Mister Cray," then "Jayber," by his barbershop patrons) shows us is how much we miss by making any assumptions about rural life. "Jayber Crow" continues Berry's series of novels set in the fictional town of Port William, Ky., which "would be smaller than the dot that locates it" on a highway map, needs no police and barely has a store; residents sit and talk without rushing, and farm the land cultivated by their great-great-grandfathers. They say of a brawl, "He drawed back and hit that big 'un right in the googler, and he went over like a plank. That put the quietus on him."

It sounds easy; it sounds quaint and corny and not altogether true. Yet it's none of those things. The people in "Jayber Crow" are from small-town Kentucky, all right, and they have a battery of idioms that put the quietus on the whole English language -- but only because they're so perfectly apropos. In fact, nothing is as simple as it might seem, because the same people who pass along the comical news that "they cut a rock out of old Mrs. Shoals' apparatix as big as a hen egg" are suffering through life with unbendable eloquence.

There is much to endure in Port William. A woman loses her small daughter, festooned with flowers, to a truck in the road and lies down on the fresh gravesite, beyond consolation. A couple grows old letting bitterness and disappointment take over their marriage until nothing else is left. An aging, brilliant farmer relinquishes control of his property to his machine-mad, arrogant son-in-law and spends his last years watching the land he knows as well as himself become spoiled and financially imperiled by the modern greed for instant gratification. Boys go to Vietnam and come back to be buried. Television, the interstate highway, the Lexington stores pull people away from the town and each other.

But Jayber Crow, perhaps, suffers the most keenly. He spends his days cutting hair and acting as a sort of bartender/priest/counselor to Port William's male population (women only come into the barbershop to bring their young sons), and, as a secondary profession, digging graves. The two occupations are strangely, intimately related; Jayber marks the passage of time by inches of hair and feet of earth. And he has a knowledge of his neighbors that few others share. As he reflects, "I have raked my comb over scalps that were dirty both above and beneath. I have lowered the ears of good men and bad, smart and stupid, young and old, kind and mean; of men who have killed other men (think of that) and of men who have been killed (think of that)."

At night, Jayber aches for Mattie Chatham, who pinned down his devotion in a moment on an ordinary day when he saw her playing with a group of children: "I was all of a sudden overcome with love for her. It was the strongest moment I had known, violent in its suddenness and completeness, and yet also the quietest. I had been utterly changed, and had not stirred.... I felt her come into being within me, as in the morning of the world." Maggie is married, and Jayber will not tell her what he feels. This love story is all the more poignant for its complete absence of courtship and romance. This is the kind of true love that scrapes at the heart and never goes away.

There's something old-fashioned about Berry's narrative, as constant, languorous and winding as the book's ever-present Kentucky River; I kept expecting the chapters to begin "In which our hero...," as if it were Dickens or Henry Fielding. There's something Dickensian, too, about Jayber's progress as a young man through a sometimes dark and always colorfully populated world-or, in its most serious moments, like the spiritual ordeals of Stephen Dedalus or Jude Fawley. Berry is a justly celebrated poet, which is reflected in his prose: dense without being overrich, stunning in its philosophical clarity, and sparkling with well-chosen particulars and the language of a region that delights in words.

By the end of "Jayber Crow," you'll feel you spent your life in Port William, too. When you leave it, you'll feel its absence, and the lonely barber's, like a missing friend.

Published October 15, 2000

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