Editor’s note: “Fidelity,” 1992, by Wendell Berry, is the eighth in a series of book reviews about works of Kentucky fiction.
Prolific novelists typically place their stories in a diversity of settings. A select few, however, create a fully-imagined world in which to set a sequence of stories and their characters. Some even to the reader the convenience of a map of their place.
The next of seven Wessex novels, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” contains his map, superimposed on southwest England.
Mississippi’s William Faulkner named the world he made Yoknapatawpha County, and his map is in “The Portable Faulkner,” edited by Malcolm Cowley. On it are places such as Varner’s Crossroads.
There, the despicable Flem Snopes first appears and his double-dealing unfolds in the masterpiece “Spotted Horses.”
Among Kentucky novelists, it is Wendell Berry who has fashioned a world of his own, named it (Port William), and, yes, gone the extra mile and mapped it. He also supplies the lineage of the families who compose his Port William “membership” — the Feltners, Wheelers, Beechums and Coulters. Their genealogies, along with the maps, are in two large story collections — “That Distant Land” (2004), containing Berry’s first 23 stories, and “A Place in Time,” his most recent book of fiction (2012), with another 20.
Previous to these, however, in 1992, five Port William stories were collected under the title “Fidelity.” These reappear in “That Distant Land,” but in themselves they make a fine book. To begin an acquaintance with Berry’s short fiction, “Fidelity” is the place to start.
Hardy’s Wessex and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha are country locales, their characters country people.
Not surprisingly, the same is true of Port William and its folk. Like the other two, Berry takes liberties with geography; yet there are resemblances between his fictional place and his native territory. This is northeast Henry County, where the hamlet of Port Royal looks down upon a bend in the Kentucky River south of its confluence with the Ohio. Between town and river is Berry’s farm and dwelling.
Of all the works mentioned or commented on in this series, not one excels “Pray Without Ceasing,” the first story in “Fidelity.” In it, what is called “moral fiction” reaches its high-water mark. Promise yourself to read it. You will be enriched, and, into the bargain, made a better person.
As the people of Port William go about their Saturday business, a leading citizen is shot to death. Everyone knows Ben Feltner to be a good man, including his killer, Thad Coulter. To the sheriff, Thad confesses, “I killed the best friend I ever had.”
Imagine what a man feels with such an act on his conscience. Berry shows you.
Blinded by rage, Ben’s son Mat rushes to retaliate. Only the intervention of Jack Beechum — a great character in Berry’s fiction — restrains him. Later, when a lynching party comes to the Feltners’ yard, it is a changed Mat who blocks them, saying, “No, gentlemen. I appreciate it. We all do. But I ask you not to do it.”
Someone else comes to the grieving family’s door, bringing a cake. Respected teacher Miss Delia Budge now is an old woman. In her acquired wisdom she says not only the theme of the story but the very destiny of human life.
She declares, “Poor Ben has met his time. When your time comes, you must go, by the hand of man or the stroke of God. It’s a time appointed, but we’ll not be notified. So we must always be ready. Pray without ceasing.”
“A Jonquil for Mary Penn” is Berry’s love story. Married, the young farming couple Elton and Mary Penn remain sweethearts. Even so, when feeling poorly, she thinks he is unaware.
The story shows otherwise. Not neglecting his round of daily chores while Mary lies abed, Elton at the same time attends her with acts of considerate affection.
“Fidelity” itself is the other long story in the collection. Aged Burley Coulter — an unforgettable character — is dying. He has been carried to a city hospital, and there hooked to tubes and monitors. Faithful to “Uncle Burley” unto death is Danny Branch.
Danny cannot endure what modern medicine is doing to his father and what undertaking will do to his remains.
To bring to pass his father’s contrary wishes, Danny takes matters into his own hands.
“The writer’s duty,” said Faulkner when receiving his Nobel Prize, “is to help man endure by lifting his heart.” In “Fidelity,” Kentucky’s Wendell Berry fulfills this high calling.
Boyle’s mobile library has the book “Fidelity.” The story is in the main library’s copies of “That Distant Land.”
James Nicholson lives in Danville.