Tuesday, August 14, 2007

J.F. Powers "The Prince of Darkness": Review

While the thirty stories of this writer's writer have been collected and reissued, I prefer here to examine each volume (for here and Amazon) with their ten stories each, separately. Over the next month I will do the same for his other four books in their original formats. I am re-reading J.F. Powers and learning so much more about how to tell a story, how to accept doubt, and how to live with uncertainty than I ever imagined when I first admired these tales at the age of eighteen. They helped pull me away from my earlier belief, but they also prepared me for a more honest confrontation with my imperfect knowledge of my inner soul.

These ten stories were first published in 1947. They reflect Powers, Midwestern-born and bred, as intrigued by the possibilities of writing about Catholic priests. This slim volume treats as well as what then was called the "race problem" with contemporary African American tensions; baseball; "The Old Bird" where a middle-aged man looking for work during war when he knows it's the only reason he could find the menial temp job he must accept, and a nuanced story, "Renner," about refugees and anti-Semitism. As a Catholic Worker who had been jailed for his opposition to WW2, Powers possessed the moral strength of convictions rooted in signs of contradiction. He also peered about with an unsparing eye for dissembling, and called his fellow Americans to task for it. Yet he remained free of sanctimony, no mean feat, and counted himself culpable too.

No wonder that Thomas Merton admired him; Powers went on with only twenty more stories over a long career. (Born 1917, he began publishing stories in the mid-1940s; he died in 1999). A "writer's writer" who refused to glad-hand or cater to the mass market, his fiction in the post-Vatican II age failed to keep the attention of a fickle readership, but in retrospect his questioning of the insularity of a Babbitry within the separatist mentality endemic to the Catholic Church in the middle of the century may have hastened its own undoing! Powers had enduring ties with those in the Church agitating for social reform and relevant liturgies. His concerns may be muted in his art, but they resonate for an attentive audience today.

The best stories here probe gently but relentlessly how moral dilemmas unfold within a superficially trivial job or mundane career, often one in a rectory or chancery. This concentration enriches the collections "The Presence of Grace (1956) & "Look How the Fish Live, expanding the themes of his early stories. and his novels "Morte d'Urban" (1962, winner of the National Book Award) and "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988) of which build on the promise first shown here, lean towards mordantly tragi-comic scrutiny of clerical life in unnamed Middle America.

His thirty stories have been collected, with no additions, as "The Stories of J.F. Powers" in 2001 by New York Review Press in a handsome edition, as well as the two novels each reissued. Painstakingly crafted, the lesser stories in "Prince" about racial tensions date themselves, however, compared to five clerical stories. "The Lord's Day" examines tensions between a domineering pastor and a convent full of cowed sisters. "The Valiant Woman" looks at a meddling housekeeper from a priest's perspective, as they are doomed to live together but remain vastly apart in their curious intimacy. "The Forks" poses a moral dilemma for an upright if uptight curate under a pastor's annoying but worldly-wise readiness to compromise one Gospel truth for another just as compelling. "Lions, Hearts, Leaping Does" offers a heartbreakingly vivid if uncharacteristically lyrical account of a dying friar's last days. It ends with an epiphany equal to any in one of Power's inspirations along with Hemingway and Faulkner, James Joyce's "Dubliners," A no less dramatic final line less ambiguously and more chillingly concluded the longer narrative of a restive associate pastor wanting a promotion in "The Prince of Darkness." This story prepares in retrospect for the fictional dioceses of Great Plains and the wonderfully apropos Ostengothenberg in the later work of Powers.

While unfairly consigned today to a mid-20c Catholic ghetto of once respected writers, Powers need not be read only by those interested in religious themes in American fiction. His assured style pares down what he ruefully and slightly satirically often observes while allowing a tenderness and humanity to filter in, akin to stories today of a superficially far different author, George Saunders. Like Saunders, Powers listens to everyday Americans off the beaten track, in nondescript suburbs and featureless tracts, and makes them as worthy of compassion and dignity as any hero of a revered epic.

[Image credit. Powers resists easy resurrection. His gif.photo came out here as if he's been shot by an inkbottle-- no doubt a trick of the printer's impish devil. I cannot find cover paintings to share on-line of his earlier stories as originally issued. In an earlier post this year, I illustrated a piece on Powers with a print by his daughter, Mary Farl Powers (1948-92), who had returned to Ireland to become a noted artist. From the University of Limerick, her 1985 "Self-Portrait."]

1 comment:

SRMcEvoy said...

I am currently working on a series about J.F. Powers myself. Do you have First Editions of Prince of Darkness and Other Stories and Look How the fish live is so could you send me a list of the stories original publication source and date? I am hoping to start my series later this year. That Elusive Story is a story about my introduction to Powers work and The Warm Sand is that shorty story with permission from the estate. I will also be posting cover art from various editions I have found including some ARC's.