The Memory of Old Jack, one of Wendell Berry’s early novels, is a mostly excellent book. It is to Berry’s credit that its flaws are noticeable largely in comparison to his masterful later novels, Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. The shortcomings of The Memory of Old Jack are, in a way, reassuring. It is comforting to see that even a writer of Berry’s caliber has improved over time.
The novel consists of twelve chapters and an epilogue. The final chapter is, compared to the haunting prose of the rest of the text, clunky and the epilogue mostly unnecessary. The book’s ending would have been stronger had Berry chosen to close it at the end of chapter 11. Overall though, these missteps do little to hinder the power of the novel.
I once had the opportunity to ask Berry about the goal of his fiction. “The only thing I try to accomplish in fiction,” he said, “is to show how people act when they love each other.”
In this book, Berry accomplishes his goal. The narrative concerns Jack Beechum, an elderly citizen of Port William, Kentucky, the fictional town where most of Berry’s stories are set. Unfolding over the course of the last day of Jack’s life, the story follows him from dawn to dusk recording what he does. What he mostly does is remember.
Because the story is told in a series of lengthy flashbacks, the narrative includes scenes stretching from the Civil War until after the World War II. Through the course of these long passages we learn more of the history of Port William and its denizens: the Coulters, the Hazletts, the Feltners and Jayber Crow.
All the familiar themes of Berry’s work are here: the importance of community, the destructiveness of the impulse to look for meaning and fulfillment Somewhere Else, the invisible complexities of our relationships with the land and with each other and, of course, agrarianism.
Berry’s books are impossible to describe adequately. His works are the perfect argument against SparkNotes. Plots tends to be spare in his fiction. The plot of The Memory of Old Jack can summarized thus: an old man wanders around a small town in Kentucky, remembers a bunch of stuff and then dies. This summary, while technically correct, neglects the important aspects of the experience found within the covers of these novels. Each Berry novel, including The Memory of Old Jack, submerges the reader in a now-gone world of profound meaning. This novel, like Berry’s other fiction, deserves multiple readings, indeed demands multiple readings from anyone who would avail himself of all the riches present on those pages.
Not everyone would enjoy this book, I suppose, but everyone should read it. If you have benefited from Berry’s other work, there is more here to edify you. If you have never read Berry or have neglected his fiction, The Memory of Old Jack might be a somewhat dense starting point. The new reader might find his short story collections Watch with Me or Fidelity more accessible. Regardless, both the seasoned reader and the Berry neophyte who picks up The Memory of Old Jack is sure to find himself paradoxically uplifted and ever more deeply grounded.
The Memory of Old Jack can be purchased here.
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