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 20th 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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Wendell Berry, with simple, almost poetic prose captures the beauty of and yearning for a lost people, place, and time in a way that is reminiscent of the departure of the Tolkien's Elves from Lothlorien and Middle Earth, of Jeremiah's laments over the loss of Jerusalem, and of Tristan Ludlow's final encounter with his bear in Legends of the Fall. While fictional in the specifics it could hardly be any more authentic to the 20th century rural American experience. A small Kentucky town, Port William, plays host to a barber, returned as a young man to the place of his birth. It is told through Jayber's point of view as his barber shop acts as a sort of living room for the town where "talk is drawn as water to low ground". Progress, machinery, war, economy, pride, and hate slowly, but unstoppably, put to death a way of life that feels known and like home. Berry penetrates deeply as very few authors can to explore the hubris, fears, insecurities, and wonders of men and our struggles with God, time, love, and hate.
It is a book about heaven. About the tastes we can get of it here with family life, friendship, beauty, and working to grow, build, and sustain things. These are like "good thing[s] that came" and then fade away leaving satisfaction and a mysterious longing that ensures us that we were not made for this place.
Jayber Crow is an immanently quotable book. Less than an hour in I decided I had to buy the ebook as well so that I could find and underline passages. I underlined more in this than in any other book I've read.
The narrator does an excellent job of capturing the pacing and steady emotion as Jayber's voice, but the editing of the recording could have been better. There were many occasions when an extra second or two pause between tales Jayber is relating would have helped the listener avoid confusion.
What do I think of this book? I absolutely hated parts and other parts totally blew me over, the words were so perfect. The author IS an acclaimed poet. I was never indifferent to this book. Either I was furious or astounded by the quality of the writing. Should I give it one star for all the times I felt like dumping it immediately? I cannot give it two or three stars because they are lukewarm ratings. I was never lukewarm to this book. Yes, I liked it a lot, four stars it is. I will explain what I liked and what I absolutely hated.
When Wendell Berry describes nature - a river, a forest, a foggy morning – it is not just beautiful, it is completely accurate. A river is something you hear and see. You feel its presence, and all this is conveyed in his words. Me, I adore walking in the woods or along a beach so I felt very attached to Berry’s words.
Humor. There is lots of humor. Tongue in cheek humor and that is my favorite. Great dialogs too.
I look at the story as a whole and I feel the message the author wants to convey is perfectly demonstrated by the events, by what happens, particularly its ending. This is a book about a barber (Jayber Crow) in Port William, Kentucky. He tells us about his life living through the events of the nineteenth century. He speaks of not only his life but all the people of the town, since being the barber he comes to know everyone. This is not a book of historical fiction; you do not read this to learn about either of the wars or the Vietnam War or the Depression, all of which he lives through. He never went to war since his heart disqualified him. He was orphaned twice, but I will not explain that. Read the book instead. He was first educated to become a priest, but he realized it wasn’t his calling. He did have faith. He philosophizes and thinks and questions. All of the things he lived through shape his personality. Berry creates a character that is believable.
The author has a pet peeve and he speaks through Jayber. Agriculture has become big business and this is just not good in the long run! Natural resources are being wasted. Small town life, based on sharing and trade where everyone knows each other is always better than big business. Small scale is always better than large scale production. But it is here that I got so annoyed with the book. I agree with the author’s/barber’s point of view. I am not opposed to the message, but it is repeated and said over and over and over to the point where I just wanted him to zip his mouth. Enough! I get it. I agree. I am not an idiot. I don’t need a lecture. Will you shut up! Do you understand how annoyed I got?!
There. If you can stand a little too much philosophizing and preaching and religious talk, which I could not quite swallow, you will also be given a good story that holds together, where the characters feel real, with lines that will make you smile or laugh or chuckle and most everyone will agree with the message imparted. The author is a poet ……except in those parts when he is proselytizing through Jayber.
P.S. Paul Michael narrated the audiobook I listened to. I liked his southern dialect. I liked the speed, which is rather slow, but I did want him to hurry up when Jayber went on and on and on with his proselytizing soliloquies. The women all sounded the same, and that annoyed me because their personalities were different!