Category Archives: Neal Stephenson

Jayber Crow vs. Anathem

Upon cracking Jayber Crow, by William Berry, you are greeted by this delightful admonition:

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.


As per my 2010 Reading List, I’ve been trying to wade through the verbiage of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which comes complete with a glossary, appendices, and a helpful wiki. I am not opposed to these things, and am greatly in favor of books of a fantasical nature, but so far Anathem is encased in the amber of a very turgid prose, which makes of it a slog rather than an adventure.  Science fiction need not contain flying saucers and laser battles but it is obliged to do what all fiction must: be compelling.  I confess, 150 pages in, that I am very near to giving up on the tome.

How refreshing, then, to glide through the first 25 pages of Jayber Crow, conveyed by such passages as this:

Poor old ramshackledy Fee Berlew of all people and in his later years, was the only man I ever had to (so to speak) throw out of my shop.  His nephew, visiting at Christmas, had slipped him a pint of whiskey, a dangerous item to have lying about in Mrs. Berlew’s house.  Fee undertook to preserve it from all harm in the shortest possible time, with the result that shortly after supper he found himself unable to see eye to eye with Mrs. Berlew.  He came, of course, to my shop for such shelter and comfort as I could give.  But his condition by then was just awful.  He was completely sodden, bewildered, half-crazy, and full of the foulest kind of indignation.  I could neither quiet him nor, finally, put up with him.  And so I helped him out the door, not being all that happy to do so on a cold night.

But he didn’t go away.  He pecked on the front window, put his face close to the glass, and reviled me.  He called me a “clabber-headed stray,” an “orphan three days shy of a bastard,” a “damned low-down hair barber”–and meaner names.  This delighted the several big boys who were passing the time with me that evening, but it did not put more joy into my life.

And then the next morning here came Fee the first thing, easing his head in through the door as though expecting me to cut it off with my razor.  He had overnight achieved that state of sobriety in which, racked by pain and sorrow, he wished to be unconscious or perhaps dead.  When he finally looked up at me his little red eyes filled with tears.

“Jayber,” he said, “Could you forgive an old son of a bitch?”

“I could,” I said.  “Yes, I can.  I do.”

Here’s hoping the rest of the book is just as pitch-perfect.  Whatever else happens, I will certainly be finishing Jayber Crow well before I can bring myself to pick up Anathem again.