As I reported in the last post, I have given up on my plan to read two Faulkner novels this year. Already way ahead on my schedule, I had plenty of time to try some things off the list, so I started A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. I found out about Berry a couple of years ago in my continuing search for Christian authors in the twentieth century. My prejudice may be ill-founded, but most recent Christian fiction seems more like pulp than literature; at least the covers make it look that way. And I keep thinking that surely some Christian in the last fifty years has done something like Lewis or Waugh or Greene. So every few months I Google it again to see what I can find.
So far Berry satisfies my itch. He writes poetic prose, and the Christianity comes through clearly without sounding forced. Oddly, the book reminds me a lot of Faulkner: a small town and its group of families with long intertwining histories; carefully worded, vivid descriptions of things, thoughts, and feelings; characters haunted by the past; various kinds of veils of mystery for the reader to get lost in. Reading about Berry a couple of days ago, I found out that all his novels tell stories of the same town, with timeframes reaching back to the nineteenth century; so Faulkner’s shadow surely does hover behind Berry’s figure. And yet I come away from Berry with a hope I don’t usually get from Faulkner. If they both talk to me incessantly about the painful sore on my soul, at least Berry does so while putting some balm on it. This spring anyway, I felt judgment from Faulkner, while so far from Berry I sense commiseration.
Every character in the novel has a backstory of pain and death to deal with. There’s Frank Lathrop, who watches after the shop of his son Jasper, who has gone to war – watching not consisting of running the store but rather of meeting friends in its back room for a regular game of rummy. There’s the lame carpenter, Ernest Finley, who finds his shop gradually arranged so as to require the least amount of walking possible. There’s Uncle Stanley Gibbs, who has lost his hearing and answers everyone’s first greeting as if it were a question about his health (it rarely is). There’s Jayber Crow, who thinks because he was adopted that his life was begun without a purpose, and thinks because his life was begun without purpose that he can never find any later in life, either. There’s Burley Coulter who raises his nephews after their mother dies and their father abandons them, only to see one of them killed in the war. And there’s Nat, the surviving nephew, who has to live with the loss of mother, father, and brother. The narration tells us that these events and circumstances shape each person and that among the losses one must learn to accept is the loss of the person he would have been had life gone differently.
Whatever Berry's brand of Christianity is, it doesn’t offer easy, ready-made answers. In fact, the characters merely tolerate the preacher when he comes to offer condolences after a son is lost in war, because the preacher’s words don’t recognize the unique circumstances of the personalities involved. Instead, the grieving townsfolk think of him as merely offering a set speech with blanks filled in by names meaningless to him. Talk of the Hereafter brings no solace to a creature who cannot find a place on earth. And that place has to accommodate loss and the individuality loss shapes in each of us.