Growing up with all possible free time spent enveloped by forest, fields, and sky, I deeply appreciate writing that evokes a strong sense of place and connection to the natural world as well as to the strength and beauty of rural community. One of America’s greatest living storytellers, Wendell Berry infuses his passion for the agrarian life and the importance of man’s connection to the raw Earth in all his writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
With the novel Nathan Coulter in 1960, Berry created the fictitious small Southern town of Port William, Kentucky, as the scene and society for his stories, much like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. In the decades that followed, Berry continued to build the collection with sundry novels and short stories, each tale lifting a partial covering from the life and people of the town and surrounding farmland. A character who is thoroughly developed and featured as the protagonist in one story may show up in a supporting role in another vignette, giving a thread of continuity to the townspeople’s lives and relationships. 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.
The last stories of Port William and its residents were released in 2012 in A Place in Time, and considering that Berry is now 88 years old, readers have since largely assumed that the collection was complete. However, this past November Berry released another volume of stories about his beloved town. How It Went offers 13 new short stories of the Port William “membership” and focuses on just one of these characters, Andy Catlett, allowing the reader a view through the window of his life to look in on various moments, both young and old, spanning from the 1930s to present day. Among these moments are a day when he discovers a beautiful clearing in the woods that has somehow escaped time’s march; his jubilant, incessant ringing of the dinner bell as the community celebrates V-J Day; and a favorite day in childhood when his father put him in charge of the adults to see a project through.
One story that struck me is “Time Out of Time,” a wistful, lyrical account of Andy as a young boy lost both in time and the sublime as he climbs tree after tree trying to catch a beautiful, young squirrel that easily stays just out of reach. The friendly game of cat and mouse goes on for hours, a moment of eternity only interrupted by the setting sun.
“Dismemberment” takes place many years later in the aftermath of Andy losing his right hand while trying to unjam a still-running corn picker. Berry examines with penetrating insight the emotional and deeply internal wounding and healing process, as well as its confluence with the external social journey to become whole again. Andy struggles to rediscover life’s purpose and meaning, how to work and be self-sufficient, how to learn to accept the help of others, how to be at ease with his friends and family again, and how to overcome the bitterness of such a loss. The permanent dismemberment of body is but a part of his temporary dismemberment of soul, mind, identity, and society, followed by its ultimate regrowth.
This concept of dismemberment plays upon the “membership” term used to describe the tight-knit community, of which everyone is a member — the outliers and the leaders alike. It is ultimately a story of Andy overcoming his dismemberment to find his place again in the membership. It is this identity in the membership, his small place in a greater whole, that brings him back to himself and that pulls him out of himself. “He had become small enough at last to enter, to ask to enter, into Flora’s and the children’s forgiveness, which had been long prepared for him, as he knew, as he had known, if he could only enter.”
Berry’s fictional offerings are by no means plot thrillers, but they have in them a rhythm that strikes to the core of human existence. He quips that it’s taken a lifetime to learn to write like an old man, and his immersive, nostalgic stories do indeed resemble those woven by a patriarchal grandfather holding court in a rocker by the fire or out on a front porch. Berry delivers a poetic, lyrical writing style that is as enchanting as it is simple, simultaneously cementing the concept that a good story doesn’t have to be driven by a suspenseful plot; a writer’s ability to capture the full beauty of human relationships, life, and death is more than sufficient.