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Jan/Feb 2007 Book Reviews

An author's return to his rural past

Review by Scott Malby

Wendell Berry.
Andy Catlett: Early Travels.

Shoemaker & Hoard. 2007. 160 pp.
ISBN 1593761368


Buy now from Amazon! Do yourself a favor and read at least one book by Wendell Berry. Andy Catlett: Early Travels should be that book. It's entertaining, clever, and reeks of grace and charm. Berry is a fine writer and gifted story teller, and when it comes to this book, don't let anyone convince you that it's not a class act. It's certainly better than a number of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. However, while Hemingway gives us the world as a complex and interactive series of changing realities, Berry gives us in this novel an idealized world we feel should somehow be, but isn't.

Andy Catlett is organized in three parts, representing each of three days, occurring four days after the Christmas of 1943. Nine-year-old Andy sets off on his first solo adventure, represented by a ten-mile bus ride to visit both sets of his grandparents living in Port William, Kentucky.

Port William is a mythical, rural Kentucky town that Berry chronicles in a series of books and short stories written and sometimes revised, stretching back over 45 years. His Port William novels and stories can be seen as an epic attempt to document rural Kentucky life from its settlement to the 1970s, but thinking and writing about the past is not the past itself. Trying to make sense of it is a fascinating and selective process that occurs long after the fact. Such a process at its worst can be idealizing, maudlin, and ineffectual. Fortunately, Andy Catlett is tender, graceful, and evocative. The writing is sophisticated without seeming to be so.

At 160 pages it's more like a novella, memoir, or extended short story. It is deceptively simple while evidencing a good deal of carefully hidden professional artistry. The work is sprinkled with arresting lines. Witness this sentence that occurs early in the book: "So I remember the nighttimes of my childhood, when the nighttime darkness enclosed separately our scattered lights." Or, this one which, when taken out of context, may suggest the reason for the book as a whole: "He had begun to ponder the days of his youth, as old men do, and the stories he told were of a time nobody else remembered."

Had this been a first or second effort by an artist, I would be heralding the arrival of a writer whose unique gifts might someday place him in the company of Steinbeck and Faulkner. However, this is not an early book; it is a creative summation. Berry is now over 70 years old, and Andy Catlett: Early Travels represents all the experience, artistry, and considerable skill that he commands. Unfortunately, it may be as far as Wendell Berry is able to go creatively. While definitely an entertaining, feel-good read, it is not the major work it could have been. Nor is it an unmitigated artistic triumph. Why?

There are actually two narrators in the story. One is nine-year-old Andy, the other is a seventy-something Andy. Just as we become accustomed to the point of view of a young Andy, the older Andy intervenes. Dividing the point of view in this way may make the telling of the story easier, giving greater control to the author, but it blunts the overall impact. One suspects an unconscious, more subtle agenda at work here.

There is another use to which Berry puts this technique of divided narrators. Intervention through the older voice mitigates any deep or uncomfortable confrontations that would make young Andy and his readers grow. Spirituality strengthens through confrontation and conflict. These two elements so necessary to a novel are glossed over in this lyrical hymn to rural Kentucky. The responsibility of the writer is not necessarily to tell the truth but definitely to show the truth. When reading the work of a true master, say War and Peace or novels by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, or Twain, the sum of their variable potentialities sweeps us up into all possibilities, even as we breathlessly demand as much of their air as we can take in.

It's different with Berry's novel. On the surface it's questionable what life-changing events young Andy Catlett is really exposed to. Maybe he's not the primary subject of the book at all. What we do know is that in three days he drinks coffee for the first time, rides a bus ten miles without his parents, and discovers that he likes to read. Perhaps the simplicity of Andy's story is meant to suggest that what matter most are those small joys of experience helping to make us who we are. Or that those who have never loved are doomed. To love means accepting responsibilities. So, metaphorically, like 9-year-old Andy Catlett, we should comb our hair and brush our teeth, get the mail for our grandmother, help our grandfather, and in recompense be blessed with the accepting community of those dear to us, all the while knowing that those who work the land will be beggared by it, destroyed, and ultimately buried in it. It's amazing how such an ostensibly feel-good story ultimately points to its own opposites.

When viewed in terms of the literary device of memoir, Andy Catlett is uncompromisingly moral. It's as if the author has an ethical agenda for his characters, refusing to let them surprise him or us. This is the way a moralist writes, but not a writer of the highest caliber. As a result, Wendell Berry's intensity becomes hobbled, as if by an amputated limb. Based on this book, Wendell Berry is certainly the master of something, but it is hard to define exactly what that something is.

I don't think you could lift at one time all the material he has published. Berry is a philosopher, moralist, poet, academician, the primary chronicler of rural Kentucky life, and just possibly a kind of prophet. He may even turn out to be an intellectual subversive in the highest literary sense, because everything Wendell Berry writes seems to be part of or point to a larger something else.

He's also a Gary Snyder kind of guy. Like Snyder, Wendell Berry was heavily influenced by the 1960s. The lessons learned from that formative period are crucially relevant in terms of his work, centering around the relationship between personal and social responsibility. Berry would probably argue that you can't have one without the other.

My guess is that this book is really not only about the soul of rural Kentucky but also about relevant possible alternatives to a consumer-driven-global-warming-planet-destroying economy. Is his work primarily ethical and trying to teach us something?

Wendell Berry may well be groping for alternative forms of social organization, evidencing a more positive and sustainable sense of community. So be it. He is not a Steinbeck or Faulkner, but he is a talented writer and questing individual who seeks for his life and work a meaning based on his own individuality and personal sense of relevance.

As for him being a kind of prophet, consider these words by Tolstoy: "I clearly realize that my biography, if it suppressed all the nastiness and criminality of my life—as they customarily write biographies—would be a lie, and that if one is going to write my biography, one must write the whole truth."

It cannot be said of Wendell Berry that he's forgotten who he is or where he comes from. The problem is that he's far more complex than he lets on. His latest effort suffers from a refusal to admit or deal with that complexity. Always, writing is a question of ideas in juxtaposition with acts. The more we see in terms of direct and specific acts, the greater the impact of the ideas they represent or encapsulate. Is Wendell Berry's Andy Catlett, and by implication his opus represented by the Port William series, merely a fascinating artistic creation, or does it represent a prophetic and perpetually living slice of life? You've got to answer that one for yourself.

 

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