Book review: Jayber Crow

I picked up a copy of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow on the recommendation of Andrew Peterson and some of the other folks at The Rabbit Room. It promised to fit into my recent exploration of agrarianism, simple living, and earthy Christianity — and in that regard I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed in most regards. The book was brilliant. It’s the closest thing to literature that I’ve read in some time (too much Hornby and Bryson and McCall Smith for me of late), and I’m glad I took the time to invest in this one. The writing is at once simple and profound, and it’s filled with snippets of Berry’s wisdom like: “Every shakeable thing has got to be shaken,” and “But here is maybe a harder thing that I have thought of at last: What if they endured and suffered through so many years together because, even failing each other, they loved each other?”

Here’s a longer selection of Berry’s prose, just for a better idea of what the novel is like:

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

The whole book is like this: rhythmic and poetic and sorrowful and real and filled with simple wisdom. I could only hope to write this well. In short: buy it, read it, love it.

But that isn’t to say I thought it was perfect. No, I ran into a huge problem with the story at the end of Part II and the beginning of Part III — the climax. The point where the narrative reached its peak and the book took an inescapable turn. And I hated it.

[SPOILER ALERT — if you want to read Jayber Crow without having it ruined, stop now]

To sum up: Jayber has, through much of the book, suffered with the pangs of unrequited love. He is in love with another man’s wife (though it must be said that he has no designs on her), and at one point in the book he realizes that her husband is unfaithful to her.

“What I needed to know,” Jayber explains, “what I needed to become a man who knew, was that Mattie Chatham did not, by the terms of life in this world, have to have an unfaithful husband—that, by the same terms in the same world, she might have a faithful one.”

Later, Jayber has an actual conversation with himself:

‘You love her enough to be a faithful husband to her? Think what you’re saying, now. You’re proposing to be the faithful husband of a woman who is already married to an unfaithful husband?’

‘Yes. That’s why. If she has an unfaithful husband, then she needs a faithful one.’

‘A woman already married who must never know that you are her husband? Think. And who will never be your wife?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you foreseen how this can end? Can You?’

‘No.’

‘Are you ready for this? Think, now.’

‘Yes, I am ready.’

‘Do you then, in love’s mystery and fear, give yourself to this woman to be her faithful husband from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death?’

‘I do. Yes! That is my vow.’

I’m all about unrequited love; it’s one of the most compelling, painful, romantic themes in life and in literature. So I don’t have a problem with that. My problem is that, in this passage at least, Jayber is clearly delusional because he isn’t, in any meaningful sense of the word, Mattie’s husband.

He loves her: fine. He can’t betray that love by being with another woman: fine. He spends the rest of his life in love with a woman he can’t have: fine. But to pretend to marry her? Not so much.

On the one hand, marriage is about love and romance; but on the other occasionally more important hand, it’s institutional, contractual, legal, and mutual. Jayber may love Mattie, but he cannot marry her.

To be fair, Jayber acknowledges that “Maybe I had begun my journey drunk and ended it crazy,” but it isn’t as if Jayber is an unreliable narrator. Instead, he seems more often to serve as Berry’s eyes and mouth, passing along his understated philosophies of community and economy. We’re asked to trust Jayber throughout the novel — or at least to learn with him as he becomes wise — and this is the one point where I can’t agree with him. Unfortunately, it seems to be the point on which the entire novel hangs.

So, it took me several chapters to get over Jayber’s selfish, masochistic vow to marry an already married woman without ever really marrying her. And, in some respects, it tainted the rest of the book for me. In many respects it ruined the ending.

Thankfully it didn’t ruin the whole book. I still enjoyed the writing and voice and most all of the philosophy that drove the 360+ pages. I liked the understated way that Berry used fiction to lay out his beliefs without ever sounding preachy, and he’s got me pretty well convinced that he’s right about a lot of things. He just happens to be wrong about marriage and, to a lesser degree, about love.

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2 Comments on “Book review: Jayber Crow

  1. Jayber’s marriage is strange, no argument. But Berry’s purpose here is better seen when you realize that Mattie is figuratively ‘the earth’. Her husband, mankind, is unfaithful, he’s killing her by pieces and Jayber (Berry) makes his vow to keep the laws that mankind has not. That’s why the ending is so heartbreaking, that no matter how much Jayber loves Mattie and does right by her (no matter how faithfully Berry cares for the earth), her husband is still out there cutting down the nestegg and squandering his wife.

    In my opinion, it’s one of the all time best endings in literature. Simply beautiful. I weep every time I read it. Improves greatly with subsequent readings.

  2. Thanks for your insight into the nature of Mattie’s role in the novel, Pete. And you’re right — the ending does make much more sense with an understanding of Mattie as the earth. Part of me feels like an idiot for not picking up on it, but the rest of me still isn’t sure.

    For one (although perhaps I missed something here as well), I took seriously his opening notice that warned against subtext, interpretation, &c. So I committed to reading the book as it was presented to me on the face of it, without looking for a deeper meaning than that which was readily apparent. And I found the book pleasantly deep as it was.

    But my bigger hesitation is that if the Mattie-as-earth allegory is going to work for me, it must first work with Mattie-as-character. In other words, one of the reasons that Narnia is so powerful is because Aslan is entirely convincing both as a Christ figure and as a good yet wild lion King. If Lewis hadn’t been able to convince me of Aslan first as Aslan, he would be hopeless in convincing me of Aslan as Christ (in any case, the books would have lost much of their power).

    So while I found Mattie-as-character lovely and compelling and admirably complex, when it came to Jayber’s marital commitment I simply wasn’t convinced. Berry didn’t sell me on the text — and a good subtext isn’t worthwhile without a convincing text, as far as I’m concerned. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, I’ve gone on too long already. All that to say, despite my dislike of Jayber’s ‘marriage,’ I still thought the novel was both Beautiful and Good.

    You’ve given me much to think about.

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