Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nathan Coulter

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From my understanding Nathan Coulter was Wendell Berry’s first entry into Port William. It was for me however, my third visit. I had previously read Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter before picking up the inaugural writing of a place I have grown to love. Much of what I appreciated about the previous books holds true for Nathan Coulter. It is a good first-person narrative. Many of the same characters appear. It is great Americana. The story is natural. Berry’s soapbox issues of farming, urban flight, family and so much more are present.

But, and this is my own issue, the perspective of the character is different than I expected. Part of this can be contributed to who Jayber and Hannah were, and expecting Nathan to tell a story like them. Part of this can be contributed to Berry finding his voice later in the series. Primarily it has to do with a limited passage of time. Wherein Jayber and Hannah recount these beautiful full-life autobiographies, Nathan tells of a specific era of his life. We do not get the same birth-to-death type feel of the other books. Truth be told it works for Nathan when you read Hannah; I just expected more, because of what I know of the author.
Some people have compared Berry to Normal Rockwell for his type of filtered Americana and positive messages. I can see the comparison, but the reality is that dramatic plots do not necessarily mean that his work is any less intense. What gets me as a reader is the reality of the experience of his characters. They are in a sense more connected to things such as death. They have real responses and emotional connectivity to others. They simply act appropriately instead of glossing over internal emotions that interfere with proper plot points.
By way of critique, as I mentioned above, I wanted more of Nathan’s life. I wanted to see Hannah’s other half at an old age. What did he take away from the marriage? What was his experience through those same years? As someone who enjoys the Port William Membership I wanted that. And it was nowhere to be found.
However, what I got was a glimpse at Nathan’s family life and some periphery characters like Big Ellis that are barely mentioned in other works. Specifically, Nathan Coulter addresses the larger than life Burley Coulter. Burley seems to be the heart and soul of the Membership, yet, to my knowledge, he does not have his own work. Everything of we know Burley we learn from someone else. Nathan, by far, gives us the best picture of a man that may be the very heart of Berry’s works.
So, who is this for; who should read Nathan Coulter? I would say someone who has not ventured into Port William, but wants a short introduction to Berry’s style. Or, for those who love the stories of Port William and want another glimpse. Enjoyed the work. Typical Berry. Beautiful storytelling.