It’s no secret ’round these parts that I think Wendell Berry is a genius. I have loved both of his novels that I read over the past few years. Jayber Crow (linked to my review) was my first encounter with Berry, and I was captivated. I went on to read Hannah Coulter (linked to my review) and loved it just as much. I expected to love Nathan Coulter as much; in fact, I expected to learn more about this second husband of Hannah’s that would somehow illuminate their life together. While I can’t say that I was disappointed by the novel (Berry’s writing could never disappoint me), I was a less than enthralled by the story. The overall tone of the story is subdued. The story covers a few years of Nathan’s childhood, so Hannah doesn’t figure into the story at all. I found Nathan’s and Brother’s relationship with their father depressing; after their mother’s death, they move in with their grandparents and have little more than a working relationship with him as they tend the farmland together. It took me a while to read this book, even though it is very short at just over a hundred pages in length. I think I was never in any real hurry to get back to it, but I didn’t not like it enough to abandon it altogether.
I don’t want to do this story an injustice in this review, so now that I’ve expressed some of the reasons why I didn’t like it, I will now focus on the parts I did like. Something kept me reading it, after all.
First, there’s the writing. Wendell Berry’s writing in this novel is just beautiful. Much of this novel is description, and I can’t think of anyone who does it better. This is a word-picture of Nathan’s grandfather:
He always hurried, even across a room, setting his feet down hard. You could never imagine him turning around and going the other way. When he walked through the house he made the dishes rattle in the kitchen cabinet, and you half expected to find his tracks sunk into the floor. He was tall and learn, his face crossed with wrinkles. His hair was white and it hung in his eyes most of the time when he wasn’t wearing a hat, because he didn’t use a comb for anything but to scratch his head. His nose crooked like a hawk’s and his eyes were pale and blue. (21)
The brightest spot in the story is the presence of Nathan’s uncle, Burley Coulter. Burley Coulter is a very memorable character, a part of the Port William membership who also appears in Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. There’s a vignette in Nathan Coulter about Nathan and Burley catching a whopper of a catfish; the story of this catfish turns into a true “fish tale,” and before it’s all said and done, even Burley is tired of the ruckus it has caused. The story is brilliantly executed, and I was reminded of my own uncles and cousins (and even, to an extent, my own father) who loved to fish. I was surrounded by fishermen growing up, and reading of jigs and lines and all night fishing trips was familiar and enjoyable for me.
Still, Berry captures the essence of thickskinned and pigheaded masculinity in this story, I think, and perhaps that’s why I have a hard time loving it. There’s not much redeeming about the stubbornness of the Coulter men’s relationships with one another, with the exception of Burley, who seems to make a joke of everything. Nathan and Brother make a game out of “passing” their father while working the tobacco fields, just like their father and Burley had done with their grandfather. However, it is a serious game, this stuff of coming into manhood, and it’s not exactly a joyous legacy:
And Brother and I had thought about it and talked about it between ourselves. In a way passing him would be the finest thing we could do, and the thing we could be proudest of. But in another way it would be bad, because it would kill him to have to get out of the way for anybody. We’d told each other that we might never do it, even when we were able, because of that. And both of us knew that if the time ever came it would be a hard thing to do, and a risky one. Once we’d passed him we could never be behind again. We’d have to stay in front, and it was a lonely and troublesome place. (92)
I suppose the bottom line is I love how the story is told; I just don’t love the story. I understand that Nathan Coulter is one of the first Port William novels. Perhaps this explains the almost episodic feel to it; there are stories, but they are interspersed with stretches of description, etc. These stories remind me of Rick Bragg’s, at least a little. I think if you like Berry you would like Bragg. I’ve read All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man and reviewed them here. Click the links and you can read my reviews, which include quotations, for a taste of Bragg.
- Lines in Pleasant Places
- Lines from the Page (This one has some good suggestions in the comments as to the next WB novel to try. I think I might pick up Andy Catlett next.)