Jayber Crow

By Wendell Berry

12,447 ratings - 4.37* vote

"This is a book about Heaven," says Jayber Crow, "but I must say too that . . . I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell." It is 1932 and he has returned to his native Port William to become the town's barber.Orphaned at age ten, Jayber Crow's acquaintance with loneliness and want have made him a patient observer of the human anima "This is a book about Heaven," says Jayber Crow, "but I must say too that . . . I have

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Book details

Paperback, 363 pages
August 30th 2001 by Counterpoint LLC

(first published September 5th 2000)

Original Title
Jayber Crow
1582431604 (ISBN13: 9781582431604)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Diane Barnes

Oh, Jayber! You told me your story and now I am drained, and devastated, and full of the joy of having known you. You, sir, are that rarest of things: A good man. A man who did his job, helped his neighbors, loved and laughed when he could, and, all along tried to do no harm.

Let me tell the rest of you about Jayber. Orphaned twice by the age of 10, sent to an orphanage where he got an education and learned to love books, he was told he needed to "make something of himself", so decided he heard the call and went to a seminary on a scholarship. There he quickly decided there were more questions than answers, so he made his way back to the community of Port William, Kentucky, where his life had begun. There he became a barber, the only one in town.
From 1937, for the next 50 years, Port William became his family. He was an ineligible bachelor who never made enough money to support a family of his own, because he stopped trying to make something of himself in order to be happy. For 50 years, Jayber took care of his community in the small ways that made a difference. He cut their hair, and dug their graves, and cleaned their church. He listened to their stories, and kept their secrets, along with a few secrets of his own.

Now, if this sounds like a book that lacks action and drama, think again. Ordinary lives are the stuff of history, and contain enough sorrow and pain and excitement and disappointment for a hundred Shakespeares to write about. Jayber tells us about his little corner of the world, and makes its history and its people come alive.

This novel is a love story, a tragedy, a cautionary tale, and a history of sorts. It's also one of the most joyful books I've ever read. Life is a wonderful thing, if we can appreciate what we have and take care of it.
Be good, to yourself and to others, do no harm, stop trying to make something of yourself, and be happy. It's really not that hard.


"As I did not know then but know now, the surface of the river is like a living soul, which is easy to disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what it was, is, and will be."

This book was an absolute joy to read and Jayber Crow one of the most wise and gentle souls I have thus far encountered in a piece of literature. Somehow the opportunity to read this book came at the perfect time for me. Anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays mark times when we often find ourselves reflecting on our own lives, the choices we have made, the different paths we have followed. Jayber helped me along with my own reflection, and I feel a better and more peaceful person for it.

Jayber was born in Goforth, Kentucky where he lived for a short time before being orphaned twice over, if you will. While memories of his loved ones at an early age "grow misty and fade away under the burden of questions", what does remain and seems constant, despite its shifting currents, is the river. "I felt, a long time before I knew, that the river had shaped the land. The whole country leaned toward the river. All the streams flowed to it. It flowed by, and yet it stayed. It brought things and carried them away. I did not know where it flowed from or to, but I knew that it flowed a great distance through the opening it had made. The current told me that." Jayber will often return to the river, both literally and figuratively, for the remainder of his life.

After receiving a calling to the clerical life, Jayber enrolls as a pre-ministerial student at Pigeonville College where he soon loses not his faith, but rather his direction once he fails to find answers to a multitude of questions. Jayber once again travels an unidentified path until he eventually winds up in Port William, Kentucky, not far from his place of birth. It is here that he establishes himself as the town barber in 1937, a position he holds for the rest of his life. Like Jayber, I found myself settling into this town and befriending its people. We now arrive at the heart of the novel, the pulse of the persons that share their lives with Jayber. I felt as if I too sat up in that barber chair, observing those that entered the shop and even those that passed by. I was charmed to meet many of these wonderful characters. Most of them lived a quiet, unassuming life - working their farms, attending to their small businesses, caring for their families. Jayber continues along his course of contemplation, asking himself introspective and often unanswerable questions. If you are like me, then Jayber will induce you to do the same. The institution of marriage, structured religion, the senselessness of war, the practice of agribusiness, the gift of nature, death, and grief are all food for thought. This is also a story about pure and unrequited love. Mostly it is about the varying branches of our lives and the choices we make. As Jayber traverses his life, much like the river flows through the land, he learns from his mistakes and triumphs. He reaches an awareness that will bring comfort to his spirit. "But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led."

This novel is simply beautiful. Wendell Berry writes with a lyrical prose that infuses Jayber’s words with honesty and heartfelt wisdom. It is thoughtful and calming, never whimsical, never preachy. It is a balm for your soul. I know I can rest easy with the paths I have followed thus far. A book for the favorites list for sure.

I can't finish without sharing a couple of bookish quotes that I loved:

"I hungered and thirsted to hear somebody talk about books who knew more about them than I did."

"I’d had the idea, once, that if I could get the chance before I died I would read all the good books there were. Now I began to see that I wasn’t apt to make it. This disappointed me, for I really wanted to read them all."


Jayber Crow is an octogenarian barber who sits under the poplars that hedge in his cabin and stares at the reflections on the river water that is always running somewhere, with time floating in swirls of memories of a life fully lived and now suddenly gone, its light extinguished from within. And yet, this very same river erodes the hills and pastures that have crowned Jayber’s home since the beginning of times as if to remind him that everything changes so that the essential remains the same.

I know what you are thinking.
What can the chronicle of community life in rural Kentucky, the unfulfilled desires of a loner trying to make sense of his declining faith or the musings of a conservationist have to do with you, a modern reader? How can they add anything new? I am sure you have had your share of going over old times and that you are familiar with many authors that have addressed similar subjects.
I won’t lie to you, this book is about all that, but it is also much more.
In fact, this book is a lot of things. Not because Berry is ambitious in his vast scope, but because he remains faithful to his vision of the world.
This book is the beginning and the end, a moral voice and a confession, a ferocious criticism to technical progress or materialism that devaluates the human.
It is the definite love story that will make you weep as you’ve never done before, a hymn to friendship, a tribute to the land that breathes out the wisdom of past generations.
It is a spiritual journey towards the culmination of a life, insignificant for its achievements, but all-abiding for its ability to detect and spread beauty even after its fleeting time has ticked out.

It turns out that Jayber, our old barber, is a philosopher after all, and that his self-effacing first-person narration becomes an intimate meditation on the mysteries of existence and the retelling of his lifelong quest to overcome fear and anger and replace them with enduring love. He becomes a monk married to his ideals that takes the vote of chastity to balance out the unfairness that befalls on the wife he won’t ever have and transforms his barber shop into an unconventional church where the Coulters, the Penns, the Feltners, the Keiths and the Chantams congregate to have a haircut and to be listened to like nowhere else in town. Barbers are known to be good listeners and Jayber was born to be both.

Wendell Berry’s prose is a clear-sighted reflection of the reality his characters struggle against, sailing the turbulent waters of the quotidian. The reader gets to see them appear and recede in the dark hole of WWI and WWII, defeated by illness or consumed by their own delusions, but in spite of this constant flow of lives parading through the years, there is a strong sense of timelessness that is closely related to the physical space they inhabit.
It’s precisely in the perpetuity of the natural world, in the idea of a place that anchors aimless spirits where Jayber’s heartache finds a comforting quietude, a solace that quenches his chronic loneliness.
Heaven is right here.
Beneath the shade of double-trunked white oaks and the song of twittering birds. In silent conversation among good friends. In the dark soil that yields crops and swaying wheat. In that so much awaited smile that covers us with light. In the boat that goes with the tide to cross this river, where you will see Jayber wishing, waiting for you, sitting patiently on the other side.


Wonderful book that seemed to increase in wonder as I read. Berry's ability to create characters of such "person-hood" amazed me. His creations, beginning with Jayber Crow, seem real, gifted with actual traits (good and not so) as would be found among living, breathing folk. Their experiences seem to reflect American life of this time and place....but I think even more than this place. For me, Berry has captured some elemental realities of American life. Though I have not ever lived in a small place like Port William, I could relate to some of the changes in Jayber's world from memories of the changes in my suburban life as a child and teen in the 1950s and 1960s.

And he writes of these changes, in people, places, nature, and the world at large, so beautifully. His language simply evokes the emotions, the scenic wonder, Jayber's awe of nature and life.

But I wouldn't want anyone to think this is a story with no humor. This is Jayber's view of his life from his childhood in the 1920s through to the 1980s and he experienced so much along the broad spectrum of emotions.

In one final part of the review, I want to leave with a couple of examples of Berry's descriptive prose. This is what pulled me in to discover the wonders of Jayber himself.

The surface of that quieted river, as I thought in those
old days at Squires Landing, as I think now, is like a window
looking into another world that is like this one except that
it is quiet. Its quietness makes it seem perfect. The ripples
are like the slats of a blind or a shutter through which we
see imperfectly what is perfect. Though that other world
can be seen only momentarily, it looks everlasting. As the
ripples become more agitated, the window darkens and the
other world is hidden. As I did not know then but know now,
the surface of the river is like a living soul, which is easy to
disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what
it was, is, and will be.
(p 20)

And musings of a different sort:

Hate succeeds. The world gives plentiful scope and
means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and
fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things
of time. That is why war is complete and spares nothing,
balks at nothing, justifies itself by all that is sacred, and
seeks victory by everything that is profane. Hell itself, the
war the war that is always among us, is the creature of
time, unending time, unrelieved by any light or hope.

But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not
accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues
and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge
of the world. For love...is not explainable or even justifiable.
It is itself the justifier.We do not make it. If it did not
happen to us, we could not imagine it.... It is in the world
but not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there
when it most holds us here.
(p 249)

And finally, as Jayber sums his life up:

This is not an exactly true account of my life. The
The necessity of telling it has caused me to divide it into
strands... Some of the funniest things have happened on
some of the saddest days. Sometimes I have been happy
in the midst of sorrow, or sorrowful in the midst of
This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I
must say too that it has been a close call......
(p 354)

I do highly recommend this book to everyone and, lest you fear that this talk of Heaven and Hell means a book full of "sermonizing", never fear. Wendell Berry is too smart and much too great a writer for that!


Other reviews have commented on the fictional part of this book, i.e. the life story of Jayber Crow so I will not mention it. Instead I will focus on how this book worked for me.
When I had finished it, I wondered about where I would shelve it (not something I often think of, and a tribute to how much I valued reading it), and I immediately realised it belonged with a group of authors that I have come to love, a group who share a theme, the theme of 'place'. Authors such as Alastair MacLeod, John McGahern, Haldor Laxness.

If I had to formulate what 'place' means to me, I think I would conclude that it is close to being my version of faith, and 'geography' is probably my version of religion (I mention faith and religion because they are woven into Jayber Crow's conception of things). To me, geography has always been first and foremost about the physical landscape, this earth we inhabit, and the lives and histories of the animals and people who shape that landscape.

There is geography in every page of this book, geography that you can see and feel, that you can walk all over in every weather. There are people in this book whose histories you live and breath, in health and in sickness; even in death, these people remain tremendously alive in your memory.

That is the power of Berry's writing, that his record of the lives of the fictional community of Port William will survive long after the landscape that inspired it has been transformed.

The changing landscape is one of his pet themes and he has been criticised for being a fanatical preserver of the environment to the exclusion of change. I don't feel he is against change, just against change that destroys for no good reason. Like Thomas Hardy in his Wessex novels, Berry examines how progress impinges on land use and on the livelihoods of the people.  

All of them knew that neither farming nor the place would continue long as they were. The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them, the past because nobody would remember it, the future because nobody could imagine it. What they know was passing from the world. Before long it would not be known. They were the last of their kind.

Berry goes further than Hardy by showing how land use changes the landscape irreversibly. I did not feel that he was preaching a doctrine here as some have claimed. The environment issues, along with the spirituality issues he touches on, are just part of the history and geography of the place, as impossible to ignore as the flood line of the Kentucky river. I think he works on the principle that it is only by thoroughly examining the physical world for meaning that we can access meaningful abstract thought. I see him as a philosopher of the physical world as much as a storyteller.

You may have no interest in geography or the environment, or in the small details of people's lives in rural Kentucky during the twentieth century, and so you may think that Berry's book holds little for you. Stay a moment while I focus on the writing.  The book is written as if the narrator Jayber Crow is speaking directly to the reader rather than writing his thoughts down. In fact there is hardly a mention of pen and paper. Instead, there are wonderful intonations and echoes of the local way of speaking in the voice you hear in your head as you read. The language is not elaborate but it is nevertheless truly impressive what complex ideas emerge from Berry’s simple but beautiful phrasing:
Every shakeable thing has got to be shaken. In a sense, nothing that was ever lost in Port William ever has been replaced. In another sense, nothing is ever lost, and we are compacted together forever, even by our failures, our regrets, and our longings.
Do read it.


Time for read through number 4...
Read through #3.
Perhaps it's just one of those stories which only intensifies and becomes greater with each reading...

All I know is that with every reading, the end of this book makes me feel like I need to take a step back from everything-- and really assess the world around me with clearer eyes.
And work toward mercy.


One year later, after my first read through, I am amending my original 4 star rating to 5-- even though it deserves 6 or 7. Beautiful, haunting, soul-stirring and will not leave me in peace.

I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to get through this book. I could chalk it up to busyness and school and all the other things that wrap up my time, but I've devoured lesser books amid those activities.

And I think therein lies the key. This book was amazing. The prose so beautiful that I couldn't have any distractions around me to diminish it. And, I'm realizing, I pored over this book more slowly because I simply didn't WANT to finish reading it. I wanted to keep hearing more of Jayber Crow's story and life.

I loved how it laid out his life in distinct sections-- from childhood, young adulthood, to being older. While his character evolved in some ways, the core of him was visible all the way through.
I also appreciated the moments in it where the humor actually made me laugh aloud.
It's one of those stories where you earnestly wished the characters were real ... because you'd will yourself to live where they are ... and I'd probably fall in love with the shy, somewhat reclusive Jayber Crow.


”My rightful first name is Jonah, but I had not gone by that name since I was ten years old. I had been called simply J., and that was the way I signed myself. Once my customers took me to themselves, they called me Jaybird, and then Jayber. Thus I became, and have remained, a possession of Port William.”

A plaintive, nostalgic lamentation on an era and the people living in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky shared through the thoughts of Jayber Crow. A town, a time that arrived seemingly without fanfare, the people arrived and some may live there still, but this time and place have changed almost every visitor who has come to visit, and most who have left, have left reluctantly. There is such a sense of an all-encompassing love and acceptance in this community, all their foolish ways and wise ones as well, are embraced or at least tolerated, even if it is with some head scratching.

Set in the 1930s, Jayber’s life unfolds, a little at a time, along with the people who help him along the way. Friends. At least most of them become friends, but Jayber seems to have a fairly unlimited reserve of tolerance and compassion, perhaps stemming from the loss of his parents, leaving him an orphan until a couple take him under their wing for a time – until he is once again orphaned, and ends up in Port William and becomes the town barber.

”I remember that in winter we lived mostly in the kitchen, for the kitchen was the only room with a stove. I remember my father’s shop, which I loved. I remember the plows and sleds that took shape there in the light of the open doorway.”

His barbershop, like most barbershops, becomes the place where the men congregate, share news of their own, or news they’ve heard, or just to sit a spell and ponder life and listen as the farmers share their woes, or good news, and where town gossip flows. Jayber hears and knows all that happens in Port William, but files it away, and never takes part in the sharing of gossip, and so their trust in him grows.

”Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light.”

There is a love story, as well, a woman that Jayber has set his sights on, a love he sees as an impossible quest, and so he quietly goes on his way most days, falling into his routine without question or pause. Perhaps because in his younger years he contemplated a religious life, his faith in all things gives him a serene strength and quiet acceptance that life will provide what he needs in all things, including love. For those who may be wary of this underlying theme, it is part and parcel of Jayber, but this is not a heavy dose of religion, or doctrine. It is not “preachy.” It is an observance of a time and place, a remembrance of a disappearing way of life, and the importance of having faith, and sharing it by thought and deed.

”The surface of the quieted river, as I thought in those old days at Squires Landing, as I think now, is like a window looking into another world that is like this one except that it is quiet. Its quietness makes it seem perfect. The ripples are like the slats of a blind or a shutter through which we see imperfectly what is perfect. Thought that other world can be seen only momentarily, it looks everlasting. As the ripples become more agitated, the window darkens and the other world is hidden. As I did not know then but know now, the surface of the river is like a living soul, which is easy to disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what it was, is, and will be.”

Many thanks to Candi, who put this one on my radar, and Laysee, whose review reminded me of all the reasons why I wanted to read this tender and touching story.


I must admit, after thoroughly pondering this philosophical novel, that I did not agree with some of the author's idealistic solutions to the world's problems, in particular the naive approach to agriculture and the economy. I will accept that it was not the author's own viewpoint, which I doubt, but that of our dearly beloved Jayber Crown's. However, the novel is a tour de force for lyrical prose and the philosophy behind heaven and hell.

Phew, the impact of Jayber Crow's unrequitted love for Mattie Chatham ripped my guts out. I felt this deep sadness, almost sorrow, for this kind and gentle man's sincerity and loyalty to a woman he could never afford. And I wanted to cry for the trees lying helplessly uprooted in The Nest.

The full circle journey we took with Jayber Crow through his life as twice-orphaned little boy, then resident of an orphanage, then divinity school, odd jobs and then back to Port William in Kentucky as the town's only barber, left me yearning for more contact with this lonely man who made friends with his neighbors in his barber shop which became the town's living room, where everyone shred their private thoughts and concerns. But Jayber also became friends with his readers. I did not want this friendship to end.

He was born at the river, then took away, and returned in his old age to the vein of water which determined the outcome of all life on earth. The river brought life, hope, enlightenment, and knowledge without words, but also confirmed the irreversible passage of time, and a sense of loss and oblivion. It flows by its own rules and divide by its own laws. The river was Jayber's soulmate. It kept Jayber moving forward at his own pace and time, and allow him to live by his own rules and decide his own destiny, which he hoped was heaven for all mankind.

What a great novel. I was thinking afterwards that the reader got emotionally so invested in this story, that we wanted to hang onto his trousers like little children, begging him not to go. Jayber did not only understood his town, he also claimed his reader's souls and climbed into our minds, knocking on the doors of our own need for goodness and love. How can we let go of someone who understood us this well? Who knew where we hid our vulnerabilities and lonely thoughts. No wonder we were left hanging when the end came and we wanted to cry for our loss. An honorable man. A decent soul. A caring earth angel to those who did not even know it.

I'm so deeply touched by this book, that words allude me completely.

I had this same overwhelming urge to meet a character in a book with Ove, in A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman,

Ebenezer in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B.Edwards,


Larry Ott in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. Another three loners who had to navigate their journey through their lives by their own sense of remaining true to themselves and what they believe in.

A slow read, but a necessary one.

PS. Jayber Crow's emotional connection with the river reminded me of this quote:
From my village I see as much of the universe as you can see from earth, So my village is as big as any other land For I am the size of what I see, Not the size of my height. —Fernando Pessoa as Alberto Caeiro, The Keeper of Sheep



“Where, I have asked myself, is this reflection? It is not on the top of the water, for if there is a little current the river can slide frictionlessly and freely beneath the reflection and the reflection does not move.”

There’s a saying that you never step in the same river twice. So it seems reasonable for Jayber Crow to ask the question. Where IS the reflection?

Most of his life he wonders what purpose he serves by being alive in the world. Every once in a while he has a sudden epiphany or inspiration or urge and changes direction without warning, seeming to feel it was preordained and meant to be that he should take a next step.

His life began by the river at Port William, where he was orphaned and had to move, first to another family and then to school. Thinking he felt a calling for the Church, he studied at college but there was too much he couldn’t reconcile.

“But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.”

He wondered what kind of a preacher he’d make, feeling as he did about the Bible.

“. . . when I preached, I thought, I would just not mention the parts that gave me trouble—“

That didn’t seem feasible, so he took off rather suddenly from college and wandered away to find himself. He’d learned a bit of hair cutting at school and luckily happened upon a barber looking for an off-sider, so he settled – for a bit. But once again, he got itchy feet and took off, feeling the pull of Port William and the river.

He arrived at the height of a flood and luckily again happened upon a fellow with a boat, who ferried him across the river and told him they needed a barber in town and he knew the perfect building.

For years his barbershop was a pivotal stop on the male social calendar, some men calling by daily to read the paper and yarn, while some had a shave and a haircut. He heard all the gossip, but it was almost as if it didn't matter what they said in front of him.

He felt he was living on the edge of things, never quite included, like a bystander in his own life, but it never seemed to occur to him that possibly everyone feels like this at one time or another. He’s a bit like the kid who thinks everyone knows how to do everything except me. Why am I so dumb? Why am I left out?

But he had fun, too, buying a car, flirting at dances in the bigger town nearby, worrying more about the flesh and less about the soul.

“I was well acquainted with the unforbidden, but now that I was accumulating a little money I invested some in the forbidden. Wherever I could locate the forbidden—and with our clientele, it wasn’t hard—I went and tried it. Wherever the sirens sang, I went ashore. Wherever I heard the suck of whirlpools and the waters gnashing on the rocks, I rowed hard to get there. It’s a little bit of a wonder that I didn’t get cast up from the depths in several pieces, or at least contract a foul disease.”

He reckons what saved him was his love of books and miserly nature.

“I was a cut-rate prodigal.”

That’s only the barest of bones of what is a rich,deliciously philosophical treatise on life and the nature of man. He despairs of the loss of the small, self-sufficient family farm with a team of mules and a hardworking family.

“We went steadily from one thing to another, from can see to can’t see, and then on by lamplight . . .”

He is no fan of the would-be corporate farmer who clears all the trees, fills sheds full of machinery and grows single crops, all on borrowed money. The soil grows hard and sour and the almighty dollar rules. It’s a familiar theme of The Good Old Days. He even has the retired folk moving to smaller holdings where they can still house the mules and raise chickens and vegetables, but he doesn’t really clarify where the food and goods come from for those without land.

It’s a romance, but for one who has lived on the land, I know that everybody can’t farm their own few acres with mules and expect to feed the world. Even in Jayber’s early years, more was needed – there were already a lot of hungry people. I got tired of the preachiness, I must admit.

He opened his barbershop in the late 30s, before WW2, the calamity that sent so many young men and women to their doom. “Nothing could reduce the strangeness and dreadfulness of that phrase, ‘gone across the waters.’

By this time he’d taken on a second job as church janitor and gravedigger. No longer a religious man, he still enjoyed the company of churchgoers on a Sunday morning and the company of the quiet departed in the graveyard.

“I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead.”

This book is such a collection of quotable quotes, aphorisms, epigrams, anecdotes, and memorable phrases, that it needs leisurely reading to let you mull it over and soak up the atmosphere.

I didn’t like the political tone here and there, but I enjoyed the narrative and the wonderful descriptions:

“His chin stuck out, when he wanted it to, as though he used it for pushing open doors.”

A building: “The whole thing was slung a little askew like an old dog half-minded to lie down, and it was badly in need of paint.”

Ultimately, it’s a life that begins and ends with the river.

“I stop and look at it. I think of its parallel, never-meeting banks, which yet never part. I think of it lying there in its long hollow, at the foot of all the landscape, a single opening from its springs in the mountains all the way to its mouth. It is a beautiful thought, one of the most beautiful of all thoughts. I think it not in my brain only but in my heart and in all the lengths of my bones.”

It's on my Old Folks shelf along with other favourites like A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here. I enjoy seeing how people have lived their lives and what they've learned or taught others.