Friday, August 17, 2007

J.F. Powers "The Presence of Grace": Review

Re-reading this 1956 collection, the second of three and considered Powers' best short fiction, I admired his ability to make me laugh and squirm at these darkly comic, gently compassionate examinations of 1950s Middle America, Catholic style. As the village of Sherwood (where some stories take place in a vaguely pinpointed but accurately mapped terrain) becomes swallowed up into Minneapolis suburbia, as the Church begins to find its parishioners assimilating beyond the reach of vestibule religious tracts into the Welcome Wagon invitations of the middle class tract, Powers shifts accordingly. While "The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories"(1947) mixed accounts of race relations, refugees and antisemitism, and baseball into the strongest tales, those about but also transcending the limits of clerical life in rectories across an austere upper Midwestern landscape where hamlet edges into prairie, this follow-up presents nine investigations of Catholic life. Most are clerical, and those that feature the laity tend to wear the trappings of their faith less obviously, as fits the subject matter. But each one peers into the dilemmas of compromise, how one must balance what's rendered to God with what's given to Caesar.

"Dawn" deals with a mysterious letter marked in the collection for Peter's Pence "The Pope- Personal." The struggle between prevarication and subtle greed, local control and papal authority, reverberates at the lowly level of one parish. "Death of a Favorite" and its sequel, "Defection of a Favorite," both are narrated by a parish cat who keeps a careful eye on an associate pastor (the same Father Burner who gave the title story in "Prince of Darkness" his own unwanted nickname) who the cat must deal with once the cat's protector is away at the hospital. These two entries are rare in that Powers uses a cat's eye view to remove his Joycean style of indirect discourse out of the human into the anthropomorphic. Some critics lower these two stories slightly for the bit of a trick ending "Death" provides, but they do show Powers varying, to generally successful and genially playful effect, his usual mode.

"The Poor Thing" gnaws at the tension between an shrewish elderly woman and her female caretaker who's been finagled and then blackmailed into the duty; Powers knows that stereotypes can never be trusted, and manipulates our view of the nagging Dolly so that we are taken aback by her humanity, persisting despite the fact that none of us would envy Teresa's employment, beholden at the hands of the well-named Mrs> Shepherd. This story, for me, recalled Flannery O'Connor's own perspective.

"Blue Island" is subtler, but puts the knife in as deeply by its conclusion. A timid housewife in a new suburban home opens her door to the Welcome Wagon lady, and tries to deal with the consequences of friendship vs. profit, while her husband skirts the line off stage largely, between his Italian Catholic upbringing with hints of bootlegging and the respectable society where, as the lady tells the younger woman, she looks like a fair, blonde, beautiful Swede. This story's climax I found nearly unbearable, and it relentlessly builds to its conclusion no less brutal than stories in "Dubliners."

Thomas Merton, Flannery herself, Frank O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and Sean O'Faolain all admired Powers. His painstaking craft combined with his moral sense eloquently, even as he no less than Hemingway or Joyce tried to listen to how his characters echoed real Americans, both on the outside in their Midwestern bitter truths and laconic delusions, and on the inside as they struggled to keep their faith in a secular, or at least purportedly Protestant, capitalist society where the military-industrial complex triumphs in the post-war boom. This critique comes obliquely, but those familiar with Powers' own thirteen-month sentencing for pacifism during the WW2 and his wartime involvement with the Catholic Worker and social justice campaigns can recognize the influence of his informed meditation upon a contradictory apostolate that the priests were vowed to follow in such an American go-getter expansionist culture where Babbitry contended against bigotry and luxury.

"A Losing Game" takes an everyday wish for a new curate, Father Faber, to wrangle a table to type upon out of the basement of an unnamed pastor. This makes Fibber McGee's closet look like Mother Hubbard's cupboard. The dynamic of underling and superior, the unspoken and the desired, pulls this lighter tale along well. "Zeal" switches the roles, as a politic bishop on a package tour herding the laity to Europe seeks, on the initial stage by train eastward from the Midwest, to ease himself out of the grasp of an eager Father "Crazy" Early, who witnesses to the hard truths of the Gospel and his priestly vocation to preach it no matter the odds or to whom. These stories show, as do the earlier two about parishioners, a rather schematic set-up that plays off a pair of matched players in a game where one person seems aware of the manipulation through the narrative filter, but the other remains stubbornly or cleverly silent to our entreaties for hearing, as it were, the other side of the story. These stories serve perhaps as examples of sturdy fictional construction, but they prove a bit less entertaining due to their parallelism and refusal to let up the pressure that the design of the story places upon its trapped characters.

But, this is Powers' world. He refuses to ease up. If the message of Christ is to be fulfilled, then priests even more than laity must never be allowed to slacken. Even though they will. Which provides the energy, the uncertainty, the humanity here. "The Devil Was the Joker" introduces the Clementines, who will provide the context for his 1962 novel "Morte d'Urban." But we see less of them and more of a lay worker who sells their magazine and canvasses parishes to raise funds for the Order. Perhaps a "Pardoner's Prologue" from Chaucer updated for a booster- crazed, billboard- fixated nuclear age?

The balance between his manipulation to close a deal and his assistant, a seminary dropout and "cradle Catholic," plumbs the depths of profiteering in the Lord's name. But, it fairly presents this in the quest of two mismatched men, who must make a living, reconcile their needs with the message of their Maker, and sleep well at night. The story again ambitiously tackles this theme perhaps at a length slightly too condensed or too limited for such a deserving topic, but it also shows that this material needed release into the novel that Powers, assembling out of other stories in the later 50s, was already working towards.

Finally, the title story returns to Father Fabre and his attempt to match the needs of home visits to his parishioners with the perceived if unintentional-- by his presence at the house to which he was invited for a meal-- of "blessing" an unmarried, late middle-aged, ambiguously paired couple who may or may not be technically sinning under the same roof. The title tilts neatly towards, again reminding me of Flannery O'Connor's predilection, a symbolic or anagogical interpretation, but this firm nudge from Powers aside, it again challenges the needs for tolerance against the demands of propriety within the Catholic parish community that still in mid-century America could exert such conformity upon its congregants. And in such decisions, balancing mercy against justice, expulsion with acceptance, Powers finds his milieu and his style fully emerge and flow into nine stories.

P.S. Powers lived 1917-99. His stories are issued as one volume from New York Review Press, as well as reprints of his two novels, the other being "Wheat That Springeth Green," (1988).

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