Wendell breaks a lot of MFA rules, which is only one of the reasons I love him and his writing. A World Lost is set, as usual for Berry, in the northeastern Kentucky area of Port William (Now Carrollton) which has become Berry country among those who know and admire this unique author’s work. A World Lost has the flavor of a memoir because the voice of Andy Catlett is so strong, authentic, redolent with experience. There I go, breaking one of the MFA rules right along with Wendell--stringing those adjectives together. For example, in speaking of his uncle Andrew, his namesake, Andy says, “and then he writes the sentence--troubled, tender, hopeful, and, I know, hopeless--that binds me to him closer than my name ... .” Authors, the conventional wisdom says, are supposed to limit themselves to one or two, or risk lessening the impact of any of their descriptors, but if Berry can ... but I digress.
Berry spends many pages in this short work--at 151 pages, it seems to fit into the category of a novella--on backstory, description, musings. Again, a violation of the dictum that the modern author is well-advised to slice out those parts the reader is inclined to skip; namely, backstory, description, musing.
When our association began [the one between the protagonist, Andy Catlett, and his Uncle Andrew] I appointed myself his hired hand at a wage of a quarter a day. Since I was not big enough to do most of the jobs I wanted to do, I tended to spend the days in uneasy search for something I could do to justify my pay. I served him mostly as a sort of page, running errands, carrying water, opening gates, handing him things.
There’s a great deal of such seeming trivia. Long stretches with no dialogue. At this point, we know that Andrew has been murdered, but the narrator doesn’t know why or seem to care very much. He’s just remembering these mundanities. It’s one of the miracles of modern literature that there is still a place for Wendell Berry and his world of small farms (tobacco farms, no less), rural simplicity, and simple prose tailored to match the characters and landscape he describes. Yes, the characters are simple, with grandmothers saying such things as “Aren’t you the limit?” and village gossips sitting on porches and muttering over scandalous hemlines. But there are also murders and affairs and frauds and thefts. And with elegant simplicity Andy Catlett turns a Grandma Moses-like countryside into a universe of moral puzzles.
Andrew Catlett, the elder, you see, is a man of “plentitude”, one inclined to do “whatever he thought of”--as he and buddies with wonderful names like Yeager Stump like to put it. He is a man who is married and committed to a life of farming and moral limits, but is unable by nature to stay within those limits, try though he might. It’s as if, as Berry puts it, you built a henhouse and told a fox to go live in it. The creature and his habitat were simply unsuited to one another. Or, put another way, “Andrew and my father [Andrew’s brother] were as unlike as a bird and a tree.”
Much of the book is about the pain Andrew and his escapades and death visit upon the family and community. In one scene which I must count as among the most powerful I have ever read, Andy watches quietly as his father, mother, and grandmother, sitting in silence in the parlor, simultaneously begin weeping--weeping without a sound or words or significant movement, just letting tears flow until after a time they wipe the tears away and go on with life. After he reaches adulthood, when the people--father, grandmother, grandfather--for whom questions might cause the most pain have died, Andrew begins to explore the mystery behind his Uncle’s murder. He was too young at the time to be told much of the story, and no one let him in on the story as the years went by. I won’t tell you what he finds out except to tell you that it’s the exploration that really matters more than anything he discovers.
In sum, A World Lost could as well be entitled A World Found. My wife observed how much we lose these days by not sitting on porches and talking and sharing the stories of the past and present that make us and our families who we are. I’m sure that’s part of what Berry had in mind, here, and it’s quite true. The world lost that impressed me was the part of Andy Catlett that was the free spirit of his uncle. Andy became the kind of adult his father was, but always wished he could be the kind of adult his uncle was, the kind of man he was named for. “A man responsive mainly to impulses:desire, affection, amusement, self-abandon, sometimes anger.” Andy’s sorry about the man he’s become, but he’s sorry about the man he was denied. Sorry about the man who was buried when he was so young.
I’m mostly glad about the wonder of Wendell Berry.