Berry has written about the community of Port William throughout his work. This latest novel is the autobiography of the town's barber, who has lived among the community for half a century, but grew up in an orphanage. As he recounts the events of his life, from his childhood at the close of World War I through the Depression and several other wars, to his retirement, the book invokes images of the wracking changes this country has undergone.
Jayber's observations don't just linger on historic events. An intimate observer of the community yet at times an outsider, Jayber keenly observes the nuances and follies of the community and its membership.
An early stint at a theological seminary ends when Jayber is shaken by doubt. Although Jayber questions doctrine, he never abandons faith. He realizes that his calling is to be the barber - and in many ways, the minister - to his beloved community.
But Jayber remains haunted by the question that caused him to reject the seminary: If Christ commanded people to love one another, why do they choose hate so often? For Jayber, revelation sometimes comes while trudging through a dark, cold, stormy night. In one memorable sequence, Jayber journeys to witness the havoc wrought by the 1937 flood. Crossing a shaky bridge, nearly overwhelmed by a runaway river, he realizes he needs to abandon his destination of Louisville in favor of Port William.
Viewed from Jayber's barber shop, most of the events of the century, from the construction of the interstate highway system to the Vietnam War, have little to do with love or even the notions of mutual benefit that bind a community. Too, some of Port William's residents are portraits of self-importance and even brutality. Even Jayber admits he fails to love everyone, although in retrospect he discovers he can feel compassion and pity for most. And most of the town's inhabitants shine with mutual love, respect, and charity. In particular, there is the woman for whom Jayber bears a bright and unrequited love, and on whose behalf he swears a unique and secret oath.
In Jayber Crow, Berry mourns the destruction of community wrought by forces like television and the emphasis on getting ahead. Where once family farmers traded their produce for goods at the local market, they're now reduced to consumers whose only welcome contribution is cash. Berry's brilliance is that the reader joins him in lamenting the town's loss of innocence, while taking hope in the strength that love and community can bring.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis. Like Jayber Crow, he grew up in Kentucky. Copyright 2000 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2000 June #2
An elegiac celebration of the redemptive power of love and community, by the prolific poet, novelist, and essayist.This tenth work of fiction by Berry is set, like most of its predecessors (A World Lost, 1996, etc.), in the fictional precincts of Port William, Kentucky, one of the most richly imagined communities in contemporary fiction. Jayber Crow, the town barber for over thirty years, beginning in the 1930s, offers a first-person recollection both of the town's quiet communal pleasures and of the efforts of its hardworking, and often hard-pressed, farmers to secure some measure of personal happiness. Their struggles are made somewhat easier by the unspoken but profound sense of community that most in Port William share, a commitment to support each other through the hard patches of life without calling attention to the help being given or taken. Jayber, an orphan and an outsider, is more aware of the complex interdependence of families and friends than most. His barbershop is a focal point of local society, a place in which many come to relax, to exchange or confirm news, and to share gossip. And Jayber, cordial but closemouthed, becomes a confidant--and confessor--to many. While the leisurely narrative is in part Jayber's recollections of the everydaypatterns and intermittent sorrows of the community, it is also the record of the impossible love Jayber harbors, for most of his adult life, for Maggie, a warm, intelligent woman married to the hustling, manipulative Troy Cheatham. Berry's work has oftendisplayed an interest in the nature and effect of religious faith. That interest takes center stage here. Jayber's love for Maggie, rather than corroding his character because it can never be expressed, leads him to a serene faith, which meets its greatest test as Port William is overcome by the modern world (farms fail, families fray and disperse, and the ubiquitous developers move in) and Maggie becomes mortally ill. Jayber's hard-won acceptance of loss offers a compelling and--by contemporary standards--quite unusual climax.A precise and moving evocation both of a vanishing lifestyle and of the liberating power of faith. (Author tour) Copyright 2000 Kirkus Reviews
Library Journal Reviews 2000 October #1
Kentucky poet and novelist Berry (A Timbered Choir) brings to life the title character, an orphan from a rural river valley near Louisville in the early 20th century. When his young parents die, Jonah (later "J," "Jay Bird," and finally "Jayber") is sent to live with older relatives, Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy. They, too, die before he is grown up, and he is sent to the Good Shepherd orphanage, a grim institution where his name is shortened to an initial. After an abortive try at the ministry, Jayber wanders back to his hometown of Port William, where he is more an observer on the edge of society and yearns for local girl Mattie Chatam from afar. The richly portrayed community unfolds delicately and surely, with the human dramas of its inhabitants revealed from Jayber's perspective. A moving, lyrical work on a small canvas, this is recommended for most libraries. Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2000 July #5
The role of community in the shaping of character is a recurring theme in the work of poet, essayist and novelist Berry, as evidenced once more in this gratifying novel set in Berry's fictional Port William, Ky. Jayber Crow, town barber from 1937 until 1969, is born in the environs of Port William, but after the deaths of his parents and, later, his guardians, he is sent to an out-of-town orphanage at the age of 10. Returning 13 years later, in the flood year of 1937, the solitary young man goes on to learn the comradely ways of the town. "In modern times much of the doing of the mighty has been the undoing of Port William and its kind," Crow reflects a reflection, too, of Berry's often-stated beliefs that salvation must be local, that rootlessness and a fixation on the postindustrial era's bright new toys will destroy us environmentally and economically. Crow earns his living with simple tools; he becomes a church sexton, though he is not unthinkingly pious; and his unrequited love for farmer's wife Mattie Chatham is pure and strong enough to bring him serene faith. In contrast, Mattie's husband, Troy, the novel's villain, disturbs the "patterns and cycles of work" on Mattie's family farm, trumpeting "whatever I see, I want" and using a tractor. The tractor stands for the introduction of new machinery and the unraveling of the fabric of family farming. It is not surprising when Troy cheats on his wife nor does it come as a shock when the Chatham's young daughter becomes a victim of dire chance. Berry's narrative style is deliberately traditional, and the novel's pace is measured and leisurely. Crow's life, which begins as WWI is about to erupt, is emblematic of a century of upheaval, and Berry's anecdotal and episodic tale sounds a challenge to contemporary notions of progress. It is to Berry's credit that a novel so freighted with ideas and ideology manages to project such warmth and luminosity. 12-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.