Thursday, May 23, 2013

the book review in which I (politely) disagree with the mad farmer

Wendell Berry's closing exhortation in the Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front provided a personal theme for the weeks of Eastertide; it seems most fitting I'd read Jayber Crow to close the season.  Fitting for many reasons, not least of which that ends of things are one of the mad farmer's literary laments.  In a world where (the mainstream, at least) is quite fixated on the Next Big Thing, Berry and his Port William, Kentucky townfolk of a certain generation resist the new mightily.  

When I read Berry's poems I find it easy to believe he and I share a kindred spirit.  I, too, care about resurrection, preserving the good and true and beautiful in a hell-bent civilization.  On the other hand when I read Berry's fiction I begin to suspect he would not much approve of me.  Thus, I read as if I were an adolescent constantly refuting "Yeah, but...." to the author's often narrow view of the good life and somewhat unjust generalizations of anyone who'd wander off the narrow path.  I can be contrarian, too, Mr. Berry.

I read about the Coulters and the Proudfoots and the Branches and Mr. Crow himself as if I know them, personally, and find them to be not representing themselves altogether truthfully.  Perhaps it's because two generations back on both sides of my family come from Port William-type villages in the center of New York state.  As I come into my own maturity I've begun to blend the good with the bad in that heritage -- the almost visceral knowing of the beauty of a creekbed, for example.  When Mr. Crow moves to his final home, living out the rest of his life on a riverbed, I feel like he's speaking my family dialect.  I know exactly the "substantial sound" of a a boat line plunking into the bottom of the wood, echoing across the water.  I comprehend the language of a single fish slurping from the surface of still water.  I know it because, by the grace of God and kindly grandparents, I've spent countless childhood days on a quiet waterfront.   But also, I think I know it because it's buried in my genes from generations before me.  

Before I was wholly alert to the world, my earliest memory involves a cow pasture, barbed wire fence, lazy brook, picnic lunch and homemade fishing pole.  The story tells it as my first caught fish.  Now I think it was my first and only.  The pasture and brook ran the perimeter of my paternal grandfather's family town.  He didn't really get to grow up there -- his father making them townfolk, instead.  He spent many early days wandering in that place, and -- in some mysterious way -- passed that knowing down to my generation.

In the quiet-hearted moments with Wendell Berry's farmers and townfolk I imagine myself as one of them.  I've known them -- in my own family tree, in the contrarian church-goers my own father attracted for most of my childhood, in the lives of my own best friends still living among several generations on family land.

Other moments I am angry.  Mr. Berry's body of work lauds the unadulterated; how does he  reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader's view) the ugly dysfunctions that prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands?  I've seen first-hand not only the ornery nature of such characters -- wishing to deny, for example, a decent salary to their pastor who does not make a living with his hands -- but also the ingrown, incestuous thinking that breeds in out-sight locales.  My paternal grandfather's father brought them to town so he could drink away the family income. I guess Mr. Berry might argue that by moving into town, working for the man across the desk rather than staying close to the family land, introduced their own demise.

I'd argue:  What were they running from? 

I've watched with my own two eyes a good country farmer fist-beat his own boy.  They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer's standards.  That did not make them good. I tip-toe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to "the man across the desk", leaving a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

My maternal grandmother's father -- a Port William-esque village man -- abandoned my grandmother when she was eight year's old because his new wife didn't like her or her older sister.  The country village apparently did not reject him for his decision even though they likely tended their own gardens, gathered their own eggs and milked their own cows.  The authenticity of their economics did not guarantee a purity of heart.

I slogged through Jayber Crow -- mostly late at night or the middle of when I couldn't sleep -- carrying on this internal argument with the author.  As a man Mr. Crow is good of heart, a model for any of us wishing to live a quiet life, work with his hands, and, if possible, be at peace with all men.  His life work barbering the men of the town, lathering their faces for a shave, 363 pages -- depicting more than thirty years -- wore me down gently into an appreciation for his dogged determination to do good and be good in this world.  Mr. Crow (like his creator) would not suffer a rush into his story or to hurry it along at any point.  I had to come to the story on their terms or not at all.  Hidden in the rhythms of this simple life, a reader is rewarded with insight into true love, altering grief, firm conviction and Gospel salvation.  They are their own reward as they do not seem to rouse suspense or surprise in the turning of the plot.  

So I submitted to the book almost as a dare from the mad farmer himself -- he who welcomes his reader to the story with this preface:
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.
Fair enough, but by turns quite unjust since on many pages I felt like Mr. Crow served as a mouthpiece for an author bemoaning every generation come along since the depression who dared to purchase produce from a chain-supermarket or drive their car across the river to see what was on the other side.  My own rising ire leaves me abashed because, in truth,  I mourn the same losses.  Still, if I could speak to Jayber Crow (aka, Wendell Berry) I'd have to ask "What about the sins of the fathers?"  The 1960's -as turbulent as they've been accused -- could not on their own produce a generation of shameless, ambitious, loveless consumers as you would have us believe.  Someone raised that generation.  Since we share the same theology of free will and depravity of man, I know not to make them solely responsible.  Neither should you, Mr. Berry, make them entirely (romantically) blameless.

In other words, someone raised Maddie Keith to seek her life's love in Troy Chatham.  Someone raised Nate and Hannah Coulter's children to leave home and never look back.  How can it be that you see so clearly the connection between men and nature, both dependent on the other for flourishing and, yet, appear willing to overlook the interdependence of one generation to another?

Or, maybe I'm only projecting onto Mr. Berry my own frustrations with my father's generation.  I worked for a man once -- just a few years younger than my dad, both children of the fifties and sixties -- whose favorite rabbit trail in any conversation involved words of admiration for "the greatest generation" and words of reproach for "kids these days".  And I never could quite figure out how he managed to overlook the fact that his own father -- the drunken man he watched beat his own mother's head against the floor -- was part of that greatest generation?

Ideals blind us, I suppose.

As does cynicism.  I caution myself (and my generation) against the opposite extreme, where Mr. Berry might romanticize I do not want to villianize.

In no uncertain terms, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow recognizes and shares with us true redemption.  These are the lines that held me in place, kept me visiting his story.  Forgiveness and mercy chosen where hatred wanted place, warm meals and good conversation with friends, a settled sense of being in a world gangbusters with ambition.  These are true callings for any generation.  
For a long time then I seemed to live by a slender thread of faith, spun out from within me. From this single thread I spun strands that joined me to the good things of the world. And then I spun more threads that joined all the strands together, making a life. When it was complete, or nearly so, it was shapely and beautiful in the light of day. It endured through the nights, but sometimes it only barely did. It would be tattered and set awry the things that fell or blew or fled or flew.  Many of the strands would be broken. Those I would have to spin and weave again in the morning.
In order to reconcile myself to the difference I feel between Mr. Berry's observation of the world and mine -- at my own risk, according to his prefaced warning -- I listen to him as I would a prophet rising to an appointed calling, announcing judgement to all transgressors, calling us to change the way we live in order to be spared.  Surly prophet, maybe; most times, I would not want to consider the Port William author my judge.  He seems too already-convinced of my guilt before hearing my story.

On a few occasions, I'd gladly keep company with Mr. Berry as my priest.  The rare -- but unmistakeable -- moments he recognizes helplessness for all mankind, no matter their chosen economy.
[after Jayber Crow chooses mercy over hatred for a man who blindly consumes all that is good and true and beautiful, he falls asleep in the forest.  Upon waking from his "bitter sleep"]...  In the darkness a large black-and-yellow spider had woven a perfect web right above me, guying it to the log, several elderberry stems, and my shirt. I eased out form under it as carefully as I could, but not without damaging it. In my bewilderment I spent several perfectly crazy minutes trying to fix it. But of course a man can't make a spider's web, any more than he can make a world. Finally I said, "Pardon me, old friend, I have got to go."
And moments in which he preaches redemption for all the damned, which is all of us:
This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell -- where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness' sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where ther is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.
My small-town lineage tell its own redemption stories.  If I had an ounce of the skill Mr. Berry, I'd write them to share with you.  Now that I've grown more humble in years, I too see the broken web of redemption in them.  Every time my paternal grandfather plays the banjo for dancing great-grandchildren he mirrors the good of his own father, a legendary jolly singer of tunes (even when alcohol-induced).  My maternal grandmother, left on the doorstep of a stranger with one tiny suitcase the size of my laptop to hold all her belongings, once told a circle of her daughters and grandchildren it was the best thing that ever happened to her.  "That was the house where I met Jesus, right on the knee of my foster mother."  

Her stories of that home and that life mixed tragedy and humor -- milking cows, emptying chamber pots for wealthy Catskill tourists, waving good-bye to her foster father as he left for his daily milk truck delivery run.  One of those mornings, the same truck collided with a train and my grandmother and her foster mother took in boarders to make a living.  A living that I'm quite certain Mr. Berry would approve.
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