Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Memory of Old Jack: Book Review

Published 1 January 1974.
The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry is one work of fiction of many set in the same town with recurring characters.  
Even though Berry was only 39 years old at the time that he published The Memory of Old Jack in 1974,  the author does a remarkable job depicting the challenges and opportunities of advanced age.

(Note: It's Wendell Berry's 81st birthday today!) 

The novel features the life and perspective of Jack Beecham as it unfolds in a single day in 1952.

Born in 1860, Jack has a lot of memories at 92 of Port William, Kentucky, a place he's lived his entire life.  At his age, he's experiencing a little dementia, but I believe this is more a literary device for Berry than a valid medial diagnosis.

Jack's advanced age and his tendency to be easily confused means that almost every person, place or thing sends him into a reverie.  This is how one dawn-to-dusk day can trigger a life time of memories to fill an entire novel.

Berry's work is grounded in a love and appreciation of nature and family farming, so it's no wonder than much of the book is a love letter to the land.  Old Jack spends the bulk of his outdoors, so his memories are filled with images of working the land and observing nature in great detail.

The novel also describes the men who farm alongside Old Jack: mentors who taught him how to work, family members, neighbors and hired hands who work in the fields beside him, and neighbors who work their properties in the same county.   Old Jack also describes the women in the town through their work to care for their homes, gardens, children, and family members, in particular their menfolk.

Even though Old Jack sees people around him in rich and complex ways, Jack himself emerges as an incredibly complex character.  By the end of the novel, the snap judgement I made about Jack softened so that I felt a mixture of respect and sympathy for him.  Over nearly a century, I watched one man's unbridled youthful zeal transform into specific hopes and dreams for loving one woman and working one piece of land.

Over time, Jack's dreams expanded and contracted with various triumphs and tragedies.  I didn't see Jack as a simple pawn in the hands of fate.  Berry gives Jack a realistic mix of strengths and weaknesses, so when he suffers a setback, it's not so easy to point a finger of blame to one cause.

Berry's language elevates this novel to a high literary plane.  Berry's admirers frequently employ the word "poetic."  Because Berry packs so much insight into his prose, it's extremely difficult for me to convey the power of this novel.    Let me share just one passage as an example.  The setting is a big family dinner (in older rural communities, this is the meal served at noon). Many of Jack's kinfolk have gathered. The men are done eating, and they have a half day's work ahead of them.
Dessert is finished. They have smoked. There comes a long moment of suspension between the conclusion of the meal and the return to work. An ancient anguish builds among them now, especially among the older ones, who know best that it is inescapable. Old Jack can feel it. Here they are, out of the sun, at rest, drinking for the pleasure of it the trickles of water melted from the ice in their glasses. And outside the sun is blazing, not a breath of wind stirs, the loads wait. They are again at the gate of Eden, looking out. Again they must resume their journey, the long return of dust to dust.  (pp. 86-87) 
Admittedly, part of the poignancy of this passage comes from my own childhood. My maternal grandfather was a rancher who grew also farmed; he grew wheat and feed corn.  During the 1960s and 1970s, my family traveled at least once a year--often twice--from our home in California to my mother's home town of Lehi, Utah.  I was a city mouse fascinated by my country mice relatives. I watched with interest my grandfather, my uncle, and my male cousins come into the house at noon to eat between doing chores.  Consequently, my own memories get mixed up with Berry's above passage.

I also ran all over his farmland with my cousins--splashing my feet in irrigation ditches, yelling into silos to hear the echo, eating fresh vegetables straight out of the kitchen garden, using the outhouses to avoid running all the way into the house to use the bathroom.  One of my most salient memories of interacting with the landscape is this: I'm riding on the back of my cousin Rick's motorcycle through rows of corn and feeling the plants strike my limbs.  But I'm still a city mouse who experienced farm land as a novelty. Berry helps me better see the farm land as a local.

Berry helps me better understand their world, especially my grandfather's world.  My grandfather was born about 40 years after Old Jack, but he still farmed using a horse and plow in the early decades of his vocation.  And my grandfather lived into his mid 90s, so his late life had some parallels to Old Jack in that my grandfather had to quit going into the fields, but he never acquiesced his patriarchal role over those who did the heavy lifting.

By the end of The Memory of Old Jack I am crying while eavesdropping on the men who are roasting Old Jack with a mixture of affection and long suffering for Jack's eccentricities.  Over the pages of the novel, Old Jack becomes more than a hardworking and stubborn man who works alone on the land. He functions as a person who conveys the community's history and values.  The younger farmers have learned a great deal from him, often begrudgingly.

And because I always read Berry as a way to use my love of language to connect to my understated, man-of-action, rancher-farmer grandfather, those tears I shed by the novel's end were as much for Grandpa Webb as they were for Old Jack.

Related:

Novels about Ripeness

Novels about Men Facing Death






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