Andy Catlett: Early Travels

I recently finished reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels. It’s another installment in his series of fictional stories of fictional people of a fictional town called Port William, Kentucky. I got my start with this author and this series after my friend Bob Phillips recommended a book called Jayber Crow. Years later, I read another called Hannah Coulter. Last summer, I read The Memory of Old Jack, and it ended up being one of my Top Three Books of 2022. So here at the start of a new summer reading season, I thought I’d try another one.

This particular book is about a nine-year-old boy, Andy Catlett. He travels to visit both sets of his grandparents in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. His parents decide that he’s old enough to ride the bus all on his own. So he spends three nights with each set of relatives: working on their farms, eating their food, interacting with their friends and family, and reflecting on his own sense of identity along the way.

The writing for Andy Catlett: Early Travels was lovely, as usual. There’s a warm glow that emanates from all of the Port William books. Still, it’s not just sappy Cracker Barrel sentimentality. Berry’s writing captures so much of the complexity of the human experience, including grief, shame, and insecurity. The narrator is an older version of Andy Catlett, reflecting back on his childhood. And he speaks of the shy fascination of a crush he has on a pretty, older girl… The deep sense of regret he carried after he baited another kid from school into a fight… The embarrassment of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to someone he admires…

It rings amazingly true to my own experience of childhood and early adolescence. And it provides genuine insight. Wisdom, even.

But my only real complaint with Andy Catlett: Early Travels is its lack of a plot. Somehow the narrative manages to maintain my interest and keep pulling me along throughout the book. But it never really goes anywhere. There’s no clear climax to the story. There’s no moment of internal or external transformation. It’s mostly character development and establishing a setting. And fortunately, Berry is a master at this. Still, I wish there would have been more riding on the narrative.

This may have been an intentional move by the author, however. 83% of the way through the book, there’s a moment where the older version of Andy Catlett stops to muse about the passage of time:

Try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to measure its length with your most advanced chronometer. It exists, so far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a child among the dead.

Perhaps this book is just about trying to capture a moment for patient scrutiny, zeroing in on the world of a nine-year-old boy to better understand the rest of the universe. I’m glad that I took the time to read this story. But it didn’t move me like some of the other Port William stories have done.

This entry was posted in Children, Elementary School Age, Family, Home, Introspection, Nostalgia, Reading, Recommendations, Recommended Reading, Recreation. Bookmark the permalink.

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