Jayber Crow is many things. It is one of the most agonizingly beautiful and moving novels I have ever read. It's a lyrical testament to the power of love, the richness of community, and the pleasures of a life lived close to the rhythms of nature. And it's also the story of a man named Jonah, called Jayber, who once thought he had the call to preach, but left the seminary to practice barbering to live out the questions that the seminary had no answers for. It is the story of a man twice orphaned, who went on a journey, a pilgrimage, and found himself. It is a work of art.
I should acknowledge from the start that I am biased to like -- to adore -- this book, for the author's narrative voice is the kind I like best; gentle, wise, and slyly witful. I was unable to simply read the book; it had to be read aloud. Slowly. Multiple times. The text is swollen with sentences that, like fruit hanging from a tree, demand to be plucked and savoured; they have body, being something beyond ordinary words. Jayber Crow isn't an action drama with a clearly defined Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, and Conclusion; it's a coming of age story, in which the gracefully maturing subjects are both Jayber and his adopted home of Port William. Jayber is a child of the Great Depression, and arrives in town shortly before the outbreak of World War 2. That war and those that follow will hurt his fair city, but the pain of them brings his characters to life all the more. It is a deeply reflective novel, in which Jayber will begin to wax poetic about one topic or another -- the decline of ecologically-savvy family farms and the advent of debt-based agribusiness, or the damage automobiles do to one's sense of place -- for a spell before returning to telling the story of Port William as it attempts to survive the 20th century like a little skiff tossed in a turbulent ocean.
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 all the good things of the world. And then I spun more threads that joined all the strands together, making a life. And 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 by things that fell or blew or fled or flew. Many of the strands would be broken. Those I would spin and weave again in the morning.
I think the only words that do Jayber Crow justice are the words of the author himself, so plea peruse some of the quotations for this book listed at GoodReads or even Tumblr. One selection which I posted on facebook:
One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, [he said] "They ought to round up every one of them [war protesters] and put them right in front of the communists, and then whoever killed who, it would all be to the good."
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try and top it. I thought of Athey's reply to Hiram Hench.
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said "'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.'"
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. "Where did you get that crap?"
I said, "Jesus Christ."
And Troy said, "Oh".
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.
If I could only ever read one novel for the rest of my life, Jayber Crow would be it. The idea that it has only been in existence for thirteen years is staggering. It seems ageless.