Wendell Berry created an all-embracing character, a portrait of perfection, in protagonist Jayber Crow. The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself is an account of small-town America as seen from the eyes of a twice-orphaned chronicler.
Jabber clung to his adopted town and all its citizens until everything he beheld and cherished broke up, piece by piece. An example is after Jayber adjusts after the elementary school in Port William is closed and the children are bused to the neighboring town of Hargrave. As a barber, Jayber paid close attention to his customers and gave them all the space they needed to tell their stories:
“My shop was a democracy if ever anyplace was. Whoever came I served and let stay as long as they wanted to. Whatever they said or did while they were there I had either to deal with or put up with.”
Jayber tells this story over a long period giving readers historical perspective:
“I remember old men who remember the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or 20 memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem.”
Jayber’s values are distinctively revealed while making his way from Frankfort to Port William. After struggling through stormy, flood-ridden weather, he rejoices after finding safety:
“I got my bowl and my spoon and my piece of bread and went off to the side again and sat on my box and leaned my back against the wall. I stuck my nose into the steam rising off of that hot soup and let my heart rejoice.”
While Jayber’s character lacks moral defects found in most boys while passing from adolescence to puberty to adulthood, Berry is able to keep readers engaged in his dramatic life. Jayber navigates through his misfortunes without behaving egotistically. This moral perfection questions character flaws created by the badness in us all, especially those that we act on, resulting in moral violations. Jayber, too, is a flawed person as he can’t extricate hate from his heart and mind while coveting another man’s wife. There’s a tension built in the story, but, Jayber never acts on his thoughts, making him a Christ-like hero.
An indication of Jayber’s rightness is shown through his infatuation for Troy Chatham’s wife, Mattie:
“The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think.”
And, when Jayber lived on the river, readers are put into his mindset regarding The Nest Egg and its connection to Mattie.
Jayber says, “The dignity of continuity has been taken away. They were the last of their kind,” referring to the children.
What’s most remarkable in Jayber Crow is the fine language Berry builds alongside its narrative.
Even though at times I was dragged through the story by colorful language, in the end I found that all of the details were necessary to get to the point of the story — listening to everything and everyone around you creates the most powerful narrative.
“…a burgeoning degree of certainty that they and their destinies had converged, that as long as the adult world did not pursue them, they were not going to waste any energy pursuing it. Then, one unassuming Wednesday, the monotony was broken.”