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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lift Every Voice and Sing




A Place in Time:  Twenty Stories of Port William
by Wendell Berry
Berkeley, California:  Counterpoint
368 pp.; $28

Reviewed by Katherine Dalton

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.

Some of these stories are so funny.  I thought I had better say that before I say anything else, because Wendell Berry, being a serious-minded man much occupied with justice, is often elegiac.  But if a lot of his fiction is occupied with loss, there is always gain in it, and a lot of that gain comes in the form of both love and humor. 

I defy any of you to read the story “Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows” and not laugh out loud. And I feel sure that in a notebook somewhere, or in the back of Mr. Berry's extensive memory, is every single funny turn of phrase he has heard in his long life.  He is a man deeply in love both with his place and the language of his place; and where there is language, there is a joke with a kick in it.

The last previous collection of short stories (complete to that point) came out in 2004, and the last novel was Andy Catlett, published in 2007; Mr. Berry is 78 now, so this new collection is not just a pleasure but an event. When I read the collected stories several years back, I was struck with their continuity, not just of character, but of theme and style. Wendell Berry has been a remarkably consistent writer. Apparently, at some point when he was in his twenties, the imagined community of Port William jumped full grown out of his head. 

But then Port William has its roots in a real place, though it is not a real place. It is the small towns of Henry County, Kentucky, distilled through the mind and memory of this native son, and through the mind and memory of his parents and grandparents and brother and neighbors too. Mr. Berry said once in an interview (and I am paraphrasing from what I hope is an accurate memory) that Port William was his own community as it would have been if it were able to know itself articulately, and speak of itself to itself. That self-knowledge and self-descriptive speech is not realistic in the real-world sense, but it is truthful. 

Some of that truth is sorrowful, because living is always going to be significantly about loss; and if a writer's job is to witness to life as he sees it, Mr. Berry has never been one to duck a hard task. But then again he can be so joyfully funny. In the story about Big Ellis's courtship, Berry writes:  “Big was late getting married. Marriage was a precaution he didn't think of until his mother died and left him alone to cook and housekeep for himself. And then he really began to hear the call of matrimony.”

The story of “Burley Coulter's Fortunate Fall” begins, “It has been a long, long time since old Uncle Bub Levers was called on to pray at the Bird's Branch church for the first and last time in his life, and he stood up and said, 'O Lord, bless me and my son Jasper. Amen.'”

But humorous or poignant or both, all the Port William stories are about relationships knitting together a world that is constantly unraveling in our fingers. They are often most optimistic in their sorrow, because few writers know better than sorrow is the Siamese twin of joy:  that whatever is dearest to us we fear most to lose, and will lose – and yet we had it. No writer is more sensitive to the gratitude of having had.

A Place in Time is full of wonderful lines. Among the passages I have marked is this one, said by Burley Coulter about his young nephews:  “At first they believed everything I said, and then they didn't believe anything I said, and then they believed some of the things I said.  That was the best of their education right there, and they got it from me.”  We are getting it, too.







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