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On Invitation and Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack

Wendell Berry opens The Memory of Old Jack like this:

Since before sunup Old Jack has been standing at the edge of the hotel porch, gazing out into the empty street of the town of Port William, and now the sun has risen and covered him from head to foot with light. But not yet warmth, and in spite of his heavy sheepskin coat he has grown cold. He pays that no mind. When he came out and stopped there at the top of the steps, mindful of the way the weight of his body is taking him, he propped it carefully with his cane and, in the way that has lately grown upon him, left it.

This is our introduction to protagonist Jack Beechum; this, our introduction to Port William, the fictional town in Kentucky where Berry sets his stories and novels. Or perhaps these aren't introductions; perhaps you've been here before with Berry, walked that empty street, considered Old Jack from a different perspective; perhaps you know Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter. But even if Port William is as familiar to you as your favorite shirt, this opening is unwieldy. Shifting from present perfect tense to present tense to past tense to present progressive and then back to past, this paragraph is not easy to navigate. Where in time are we? What is happening or did just happen that we are supposed to notice?

And then we have that last sentence, that deliberate stacking of clauses, that obfuscating layer of phrases separated by commas, before the abrupt conclusion: left it. Left what? His cane? The porch? The hotel? This opening is anything but inviting.

Only upon careful unfolding are we able to feel somewhat confident of what Old Jack left and when. If the reader is willing to let that opening be a bit muddy, willing to see where Old Jack wants to take us, there is much in store. By the end, all will be clear. If, like me, you are reading this title for the third or fourth time, you may be surprised that the opening still has the power to trip you up. If, like me, you close the book and turn back to that opening again, you might start to understand what kind of master Wendell Berry is.

At the book's opening, it is September, 1952, and Jack Beechum -- Old Jack -- is 92 years old and has begun to worry his loved ones. He lives at the hotel turned nursing home in town, forced to give up his beloved farm when it became clear he could not manage it on his own. He still rises before the sun, spending the bulk of his day lost in his own memories. So, too, do we. The shifting tenses of that opening paragraph are not a mistake, not evidence of sloppy editing. They are part of the story; they are the story.

Though the book is relatively short, it takes its time. Not at all unlike an elderly family member navigating the journey from the living room to the bedroom, the narrative moves carefully, thoughtfully, and with no unnecessary haste. Through Jack's memory, we trace with him the changes over the years: in farm and town, culture and family. We learn of his pride and ambition and failings; we learn of his heartbreaks and passions and devotion to the land. We see him through the eyes of the loved ones in the present; we learn from his mentors in the past. And we begin to understand what Berry was doing in the opening paragraph.

When Jack stops at the top of the steps, so mindful of his body's weight, it is because it is his body that is propped on the cane, his body that he will leave. Not death, not at that moment, but a leave-taking all the same, a turning inward that will be familiar to any who have been granted the privilege of bearing witness to the final chapters of a full life. When Jack leaves his body, he travels in time, in his memory, and we go with him, seeing him as a five-year-old boy losing his brothers to war and his mother perhaps to grief; at twenty-eight, full of pride and ambition; around 40 and grappling with the loss and anger and uncertainty of middle-age. We go with Jack through and around and between time, feeling ourselves enfolded by his memory and entwined with his community. For though this is Jack's story, these are Jack's memories, the book is -- as always -- about Port William and its people. It is about what happens to a place and a people when the people invest in and depend upon the place.

The "endlessly abounding and unfolding promise" of land well-worked is a common theme in Berry's work. Jack and those sympathetic to him share in that promise; as a contrast, Berry provides characters like Lightning Berlew and his woman, farmhands and tenants on Jack's land, described with no minced words:

"Though the two of them live and work on the place, they have no connection to it, no interest in it, no hope from it. They live, and appear content to live, from hand to mouth in the world of merchandise, connected to it by daily money poorly earned."

Though there is no malice here, there is a sort of sorrowful condemnation. The fast-moving Berlews receive the bulk of it, but it is also at least a warning to the reader, who likely does not have land to work and is all-too-often content to live in the world of merchandise. Berry is prone to a bit of preaching; there are likely many who find him too harsh or determinedly out-of-touch with today's economic realities. But to those who are inclined to listen, even with a skeptical ear, he offers moments that could be described as an invitation to something better:

"For some moments yet he stands still upon the turning world, in the whirl of snow, in the falling night. Closing the doors against the cold dark, he has closed and cherished in his mind the thriving that the barn holds, the vision of that harbored life emerging in green spring. This is his devotion. He tilts his face up into the long fall of the snow."

Through Jack and Mat and Andy Catlett, through Hannah Coulter and Margaret and Jayber, we are invited to consider a life that is simultaneously bigger and smaller than the one we are so often sold. You can find this invitation in all that Berry does, but the Port William stories bring it most fully to life. If you've never visited Port William, I heartily recommend you do; and if it's been awhile, like it was for me, I humbly suggest a return may be long overdue.

--Berry dips back into Port William (including a nod to Old Jack!) in The Art of Loading Brush, a collection of essays, stories, and poems. I count it as my favorite of his works.


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