Sunday, September 2, 2007

J. F. Powers' "Look How the Fish Live": Review

This, the third and final collection of his stories, picks up in the era before (Vatican II, with selections as early as 1957, although given the slow nature of Powers' preparation, these ten stories did not appear in one volume until 1975! They show a changing Church, obviously, and Powers appears to be, as his colleague Jon Hassler called him, "a saint with a bad temper" as he grumpily tries to-- as one of his priests tries to put it, answer the unanswerable question. "How can we make sanctity as appealing as sex to the common man?" The friar answered the seminarian merely that we must keep on trying, that's all. This commonsensical, quite Midwestern and drolly American reply from mid-20c Minnesota, as lived by Powers and fictionalized if thinly in his two novels and his thirty stories, on second thought leaves out one of the key problems facing his priests and laity as they grapple with a world where Holy Resting Place is proposed as a less off-putting name for the parish dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre, where guitar masses and clergy yearning to break free of celibacy contend with old-school clerics and restive bishops before and after being put out to pastoral pasture in the rural diocese of Ostergothenberg.

The dilemma is this. Sex and sanctity confounded the clergy, as "Priestly Fellowship" maps in the post-conciliar era. But, for the laypeople determined to toughen it our by the dictates that Powers sincerely lived by and doggedly believed in, I suppose that the harsh reality of an unpampered life as a critical favorite who sold few stories and fewer books and with a wife who longed to break free of her childraising duties to get back to writing (she managed but a handful of published stories and one novel, 1964-9 "Rafferty & Co.") did get the pair of talented artists but destitute breadwinners down in the dumps. Even Powers and his wife, writer Betty Wahl, contended with as he admitted once five children when they were not really cut out to be parents. One wonders if they had been able to avail themselves of contraception in their own procreative years if Powers & Wahl could have devoted themselves more to their shared craft, and if fewer mouths to feed (Thomas Merton recalled on a visit in the 1950s to the Powers home near St John's U in St Cloud five children lined up by size bringing in the beer steins to celebrate the monk's dinner as a detour from Merton's attendance at a psychological conference at the monastery in Minnesota) could have meant more fiction from the happy couple. Instead, much of this slim volume must have been written during their stints back and forth from Ireland and in teaching in various colleges here. Powers' painstaking concentration meant few stories over what here's nineteen years since his previous collection and thirteen since his first novel.

The results, as they say, are mixed. The title story opens promisingly, a suburban father (modelled on the author and his own family's set of fated foreclosures on their homestead) who finds that whether DDT, nature's cruelty, Civil Defense, the expanding local college, parking lots and dorms encroaching and then obliterating his home, domestication has its downsides. The wild, the unforeseen, and the military-industrial complex all subtly bear down relentlessly upon one harried paterfamilias.

"Bill" will later be incorporated and expanded into his last novel, the 1988 (see about slow preparation?) "Wheat that Springeth Green", as will "Priestly Fellowship." Here we find Fr. Joe Hackett, forty-four, dealing with a new curate whose name the pastor never finds out-- and Joe never comes out straight and asks!-- and then the curate's pals, one an ex-seminarian proudly atheist but still team-teaching a class in Scripture with his old seminary professor; the other clerics reflect one cautious man who Joe pegs as a future bishop, one who seems overwhelmed by the changes, and one who embraces them to the point of relativism and folly. It's not hard to see where Powers' sympathies lie.

The other clerical stories take place in the same world as Powers' earlier fiction. "One of Them," although perhaps a bit long-winded as are all of the clerical stories here (but one can blame Powers little for stretching out and elaborating his wonderfully wry diocese and its familiar, fatalistic, and flawed priests) good-naturedly examines a convert, Simpson, who is ordained and sent to a nearly monosyllabic, extremely laconic old Irish pastor. Simp must learn the ropes and finds, as in a marriage, becoming more like his housemate than he bargained for. This story reminded me of earlier stories in "Presence" and its tone takes more from the 1950s-era by the quaintly dated nature of the pastor's attitudes as compared to the newer, post-Vatican II-era clerics being minted. We also return to a minor character from "Presence," Fr. Beeman, who will appear in a similar role in "Wheat."

"Keystone" takes a long look at a bishop of that certain diocese who aims at a new cathedral lacking what the newer Church and trendy architects dismiss as no longer needed: an arch cementing the portals together to bear their weight. Written originally around the time of "Morte d'Urban," when Vatican II was in session, this long tale explores more of the power struggles that John Dullinger, bishop of Ostergothenberg, must contend with along with his up-and-coming auxiliary, Msgr Gau.

After the auxiliary takes over, John retires, more or less, but finds renewal in "Farewell," filling on "livery-detail" for small parishes on short-term loan-- much as Fr Urban had in "Morte." Bishop Dullinger begins to rediscover his vocation, and his true calling, until, just as the Clementine preacher had in the novel, the bishop too finds a sudden deus ex machina while out in the open. These two stories show Powers operating with accustomed ease in his own imaginary terrain, not too far from his real surroundings.

Brief pieces for the first time enter a collection of Powers' short works. "Moonshot" purports to be a play, but it's more of a sketch, a rather shallow send-up of the Cold War race in space to build moon buildings out of pumice rock. It's very slight. The even briefer "Folks" attempts to poke fun at wife-swapping and the end-of-the year holiday letter sent another couple who's drifted away from such conviviality, but again the tone is arch and the style forced. Better is "Pharisees," which taken in light of the ex-sem Conklin in "Priestly Fellowship" as the ex-Pharisee makes more sense. This short tale's a send-up of the Publican & Pharisee parable, and reveals the only direct parody of an actual bible story that I can recall in Powers. It's a novelty, but it grows on you with repeat readings by its sly knowing wit.

"Tinkers" ends with Powers' only story dealing directly (in a manner of speaking) with his Irish experience. A great counterpart to his wife's novel, which was all about their South Co. Dublin suburban sojourns on-and-off in the 50s and 60s. As Jon Hassler's noted, it's so understated at times that a reader risks missing the point, but it's an oblique commentary on itinerancy, the pretensions of returning Yanks, and the indomitable attitudes of their Hibernian hosts towards those with a bit more cash and lots less sense than they think. Powers and Wahl both send up their own American pretensions at the hands of Irish landlords, workers, and neighbors who manage to undermine any hope that, as Powers and Wahl once believed, they could actually live in Ireland in a time half a century ago far less expensive than now and save money from paying rent in Minnesota, enough to get by on savings and simply write!

(Blog image: "Cloud Torso" (1986) from Mary Farl Powers, daughter of Jim & Betty, who was born in Ireland on one of their sojourns and returned there to paint.)

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