At first, I thought it was simply Berry’s languid prose that made Jayber Crow seen familiar, but when the narrator (Crow himself) spotted Maggie on page nine, I knew I’d read the book before. I hadn’t recalled the title, but I had recalled this story of perhaps the most unrequited love in the annals of literature and I just kept on reading.
Jayber Crow is not a novel in the normal sense. I subscribe to E.M. Forster’s vague definition of a novel as (paraphrasing) “a prose work of some length” and have no trouble with calling a book a novel for just about any reason whatever; however, it is worth noting that Jayber Crow reads more like a series of vignettes than like a work with the unified through-line of action that we are accustomed to.
Berry’s language is so captivating that it doesn’t matter and one doesn’t notice that nothing much is happening.
I remember how spring came, just when I thought it might stay winter forever, at first in little touches and strokes of green lighting up the bare mud like candle flames, and then it covered the whole place with a light pelt of shadowy grass blades and leaves. And I remember how, as the days and winds passed over, the foliage shifted and sang.
The one consistent protagonist-antagonist relationship is Jayber vs. Troy Chatham, the husband of his secret love. Crow has a few indifferent romantic adventures, but remains true to the object of his undeclared affections through the hills and valleys of his long and relatively uneventful life.
Despite its homey tone and placid exterior, Jayber Crow has a message or two to deliver. One is a polemic against hypocrisy and pretense.
Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins–hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust–came from the soul. But these preachers . . . thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.
So Jayber pretty much dissociates himself from organized religion and he remains stout against such contradictions of behavior and philosophy. More important in terms of both the book and of Berry’s world view is the opposition to greed and waste. Crow’s world is the world of the rural depression, where money is nearly non existent, and every scrap of possession is precious. Crow himself never has running water, even in his barber shop, clear into the 1950’s, and he never misses it. His adversary, Troy Chatham, is a fool of the new age who runs his life on credit and destroys two good farms with reckless use of machinery and the get rich schemes of an agribusiness man.
There’s a lot of front-porch philosophy that gets repetitious and tedious from time to time, but it could be that we’re being taught in our global village days that waste not, want not is not such a bad way to live after all. That living any other way will lead us to perdition.
Just ask Jayber. He’ll tell you.