Ex Libris: Fidelity – Five Stories

“It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” ― Wendell Berry

A soldier walks home fromwar through the familiar terrain of his youth; two young men navigate a flooded river at night to check on their neighbors; a quiet farmer sneaks his comatose father out of the hospital so that he can die at home with dignity; the practical meaning of God’s love and grace is extended to the worst of sinners. The five short stories collected in Wendell Berry’s Fidelity are by no means plot thrillers, but they have in them a rhythm that strikes to the core of human existence. Known as one of America’s finest prose writers, Berry delivers a poetic, descriptive writing style that is as enchanting as it is simple, and its lyrical lilt reminded me somewhat of Ernest Hemingway. Also similar to Hemingway is the concept that a good story doesn’t have to be driven by a suspenseful plot; a writer’s ability to fully capture the beauty of human relationship, life and death is more than sufficient. 

Like William Faulkner and his fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Wendell Berry created the small, rural, Southern town of Port William, Kentucky as the scene and society for all of his stories, which number eight novels and 47 short stories. Each tale lifts a partial covering from the life and people of the town and surrounding farmland, and a character who is thoroughly developed and featured as the protagonist in one story will then occasionally show up in a supporting role, or just receive a small reference, in another vignette; thus the reader can follow the thread of relationships between the townspeople. Some stories are narrated in first person, others in third; one narrative spans nearly 90 pages, the next only nine. Each story is imbued with deep feeling, and while most strike a somewhat somber, pensive note, no catastrophe, trial or even trifling inconvenience is insurmountable when faced by an individual supported by the bonds of loyal community. 

In the first story of Fidelity, “Pray Without Ceasing,” Berry opens by exploring the connectedness of the past in the present within those living — the product of the past. “The past is present also … But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears.” The narrator describes standing on a road that passes through Port William as standing on the strata of his history that goes through the known past into the unknown, working through the generations who have walked there, the buildings erected and torn down beside it, and the layers of pavement and gravel all the way back to the buffalo trails on that one spot of land. 

“You work your way down, or not so much down as within, into the interior of the present, until finally you come to that beginning in which all things, the world and the light itself, at a word welled up into being out of their absence. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is in time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.”

This first encounter with Wendell Berry captivated me, drawing me into the world of Port William and the down to earth philosophy of Berry’s writing. The only thing better than discovering a good book is falling in love with the writing of one who has already published prolifically (in this case 50 other stories), thus allowing new readers to indulge their insatiable appetite at will. 

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