By Wendall Berry
Read Aug 2019
Jaybar Crow is born in 1914 near Port William, KY (the setting for many of Berry’s books). He’s orphaned at age 7 and goes to live with his aunt and uncle who pass within about three years. At that point Jaybar is sent to an out of town orphanage. He briefly attends a small college on scholarship to become a minister but leaves when he realizes he doesn’t have some answers to important questions his congregation members will likely have. He arrives in Port William in 1937 just as the town barber has left town with his family as the trade couldn’t support a family, but maybe could a single fellow. As he had learned to barber while at the orphanage, an occupation has is found. The local banker becomes convinced Jaybar can make the payments on the small building housing the barber shop—one room on the first floor for the shop; one room above for living quarters; outhouse in the back; no running water. Jaybar settles into his trade and the barber shop becomes a fixture in the community. He falls in love (from afar) with Matty who marries her high school sweetheart and Big Man on Campus, Troy Chatham. Troy wants to be a big farmer too and jumps on the mechanization band wagon, buying tractors, and other equipment and going into debt to pay for it. This is contrary to Matty’s parents (and other neighbors’) ways. In 1969 when Jaybar is 54, the health inspector gives Jaybar an ultimatum: get running water in his barbershop or close down. Jaybar chooses the latter and moves to a friend’s cabin on a nearby river. He takes his barber chair with him and some of his customers follow him, but only providing him “donations” so he stays on the right side of regulations. Thus Jaybar continues his life, just barely “on the grid”. Between discussions of the goings on in the town, there are stretches of Jaybar’s thinking about faith including the questions that prompted him to leave college.
Berry beautiful language and pace forces the reader to slow down and savor the spinning of his tale of a past time when things were simpler and slower and a person’s interaction with “the grid” could be very slight. This reader lives part of the year in a rural area populated by Amish farmers. All have some source of revenue to pay taxes and buy the goods they don’t make themselves (cloth, shoes, books, etc). But their interaction with “the grid” seems limited to what’s required to live the disconnected lifestyle they’ve chosen. Berry’s subtle message asks us to consider “who has it right”?