Who's afraid of J.F. Powers?

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krazy kat

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Jul 30, 2000, 3:00:00 AM7/30/00
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Looking for some information about Joyce Cary on the internet, I
recently saw that the New York Review of Books has launched a series of
reissues of "forgotten classics". One of the authors they champion there
is a certain J.F. Powers, whom I had never heard of before. The title of
his novel Morte D'Urban sounded somewhat intriguing - as did the
peculiar fact that apparently most of his work deals with the life of
Roman-Catholic priests in the American Midwest. A subject (as the blurbs
will have it) "uniquely his". My decision to sound out this author was
clenched by the facts that Morte D'Urban had received praise from Philip
Roth, my personal fetish author (and one who rarely writes reviews, and
therefore is rarely cited as having praised a particular book), *and*
that it had won the National Book Award in 1962. (If ever I'm short of
ideas about what book to read next, I think I'll just run down the list
of past winners of the NBA/Pulitzer/Booker Prize &c.)

By the looks of it, the NYRB reissue of Powers' work is long overdue. I
managed to get my hand on his two novels and two of his short story
collections in second-hand bookshops and the library - but his third
collection was nowhere to be found in this town, and it looks as though
the second-hand copy of his first novel Morte D'Urban that I chanced on
was the *only* copy available in the whole of Amsterdam. None of his
titles were to be found on the shelves of the regular bookshops.
I guess this is often the lot of the authors with a smallish
oeuvre. If you don't publish a book every 2 to 5 years, you're soon out
of the public eye. Powers seems only to have published one book more or
less every decade from 1947 till 1985.

When I was halfway through his superb Morte D'Urban, I was so impressed
that I thought: Well, this seems to be an author who works so long and
hard to make his few stories and novels absolutely perfect that he just
can't manage to turn out more than about 250 pages every ten years.
After all, in the introduction to the complete stories Dennis Donoghue
writes that someone had remarked to him:

Did I know that Powers spent the morning putting in a comma and
the afternoon wondering whether or not he should replace it with
a semicolon?
<http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/NYRB/storiesJFP_intro.html>

But "quality control" couldn't have been the only reason his oeuvre
remained so small. Lack of inspiration probably also had something to do
with it. How else to account for some of the less successful or even
downright ridiculous stories in his last collection?
Certain remarks of his daughter, who wrote an introduction to his
second novel The Wheat that Springeth Green, seem to confirm this. She
calls Powers a "master of the art of tinkering and procrastination".
("Tinkers", significantly, is the title of Powers' last short story,
almost a kind of literary farewell which has the family life of a
blocked writer as its subject.) And she writes:

My father [...] felt that daily life could only be a distraction
from his calling. Tragically, in the years that he struggled to
write Wheat, he was often lost in a wilderness of petty detail
and procrastination, wasting hours repairing and polishing his
shoes, rubbing emollients into his leather-bound books, battling
bats, mice, and squirrels in the house, and gophers under the
sun; caulking windows, spackling cracks and holes, gluing,
taping, and tapping in tacks.
<http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/NYRB/wheat_intro.html>

What emerges when you read the only five books that he ever published is
the picture of an author to whom writing didn't come easy, and who must
have got stuck in immense writing blocks. A trickler rather than a
gusher, to use the phrase of a writer in the New York Times. With
immense effort he managed to publish two collections of stories and a
novel within 15 years. But after that, writing got more and more
difficult. He managed to squeeze out enough short stories for one more
collection - although some of them seemed like fragments of unfinished
novels, and some were insubstantial skits to pad out the volume. Over
the next thirteen years he padded out two of those stories into a second
novel, which didn't attain the level of his first, however. His career
seems to have petered out, in a sense. Small wonder then that he seems
now forgotten by critics and readers alike.

Still, his work is of too consistently high a quality to deserve such
neglect. Indeed, I feel he deserves a wider audience than the Anthony
Powells, Annie Proulx and Kent Harufs of this world. He is a master at
the comedy of human relations - especially of the relations of people
somehow condemned to each other. With other writers, this is "condemned
to each other by a bad marriage" - in Powers' case it's most usually
"condemned to each other by the hierarchy of the church" - a church
whose perversity in assigning curates to pastors and pastors to dioceses
approaches the arbitrariness of the will of God.

The Prince of Darkness (1947)
His first collection of short stories reads like a typical debut
collection of the period. It's the collection of a writer wanting to
display his craft by presenting a bouquet of stories with wildly
diverging subjects. Some of the stories, too, read like typical examples
of the post-New Criticism writing that took hold in the 40s and 50s.
(I'm thinking of the "well crafted prose" of the ilk of McCullers,
Capote and Salinger, all of whom published story collections like
these). Thus there is an archetypal story of a young boy's loss of
innocence when he finds out his real life baseball hero is nothing like
the baseball hero of the dime novels he reads. Already a sizeable
portion of the stories are about priests, but not yet more than half.
These stories are the best in the book, however.

The Presence of Grace (1957)
In his second collection Powers has clearly found "his" subject. All but
two of the stories deal directly with priests. Most of them are very
good. They also make you wonder *why* he wrote almost exclusively about
priests, not (AFAIK) having been one himself. Something to do with the
idea of renouncing the world and dedicating oneself to one's vocation,
perhaps. (Compare the way Philip Roth has alluded more than once to his
trade as being "monk's work".) You might speculate that many writers who
have a tendency to get "blocked", as he obviously did, he was overly
preoccupied with the unworldly nature of his vocation - and that
consequently his preoccupation with the vagaries of the priesthood is a
little self-conscious.

Morte D'Urban (1962)
Some will probably say Powers' stories are his best work - personally, I
liked this novel best of all. Father Urban is a travelling priest, who
holds talks in dioceses around the country on invitation. He's a
brilliant speaker, but he has the bad luck of being part of an order
where mediocrity rules supreme. Then suddenly he's taken off the lecture
tour and detailed at a new mission in some out of the way place: two
ramshackle buildings run by a monk who's the epitome of incompetence.
The ensuing comedy, of the unarticulated rivalry between Urban and his
supposed superior, and of the wheeling-dealing that saves the mission's
existence.
As so often in Powers' work, it all comes to nothing in the end.
At the bottom of Powers' sometimes hilarious comedy is a deep melancholy
and world-weariness.

Look How The Fish Live (1975)
This final collection once more consists mainly of stories about priests
- apart from some unsubstantial short skits that have no place in a
serious collection of stories, and which seem only to be there to pad it
out. However, the book also contains two very substantial stories (the
first and the last in the book) dealing not with priests but with
someone much like Powers: a writer with a large family to support, with
a tendency to misanthropy and a writer's block. These are very good, and
also somewhat painful stories - and they show (if we may be allowed to
read them as somewhat autobiographical) how he projected his own
complexes and worries about his goals and his failures into the endless
array of priests that he portrayed in his fiction.

Wheat That Springeth Green (1988)
He finally managed to write one more novel. I liked this one least of
all his fictions about priests. It's a rather loose and baggy novel,
describing the entire career of one particular priest. One significant
difference with the rest of his fiction is that Powers here goes into
more detail about the nature of the priest's calling, and his wrestle
with faith. In itself this can be an interesting theme. But the point is
that his leaving this out was part of what made his earlier fiction so
successful. In the priests depicted there, the spiritual dimension is
wholly lacking. They are portrayed only as the members of a huge and
outdated bureaucratic system called the Catholic church - members and
who can look very funny if their scheming and their petty grudges are
seen from a distance.
Although there is some of that in this novel too, Powers lessens
the distance this time, and his attempt at fleshing out his characters
more, making them "rounder", isn't entirely successful and robs this
novel of some of the bite that his earlier work had. There are some nice
episodes, which would have made fine short stories - and indeed two of
the episodes are present in their earlier short story incarnation in
Look How The Fish Live. But the novel just rambles on and couldn't quite
keep my interest.
Having said that, the worst of Powers is still often better than
the best of many a writer, so don't hesitate and just try them all.
--
Frank Lekens
operamail.com is where it's really @

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