Sunday, September 2, 2007

"The Stories of J.F. Powers": Review

"The Stories of J.F. Powers": Review

I have reviewed on Amazon and this blog the earlier collections in their original format, "Prince of Darkness" (1947) and "Presence of Grace," (1956) as well as the novel "Morte d'Urban" (1962). The collected three thin volumes, thirty stories total, are reprinted as "The Stories of J.F. Powers" in 2001 from NY Review Press, as well as reissues of the two novels. As another reviewer on Amazon (where this appeared 9/2/07) here noted, I too prefer the original volumes, but the fact that NY Review Press has reprinted the five books (the two novels and this anthology) in handsome editions after Powers (1917-99) languished as a cult favorite and, curse and blessing for him, status as a "writer's writer" who took years to create, it seems, a single story, judging from over forty years and the small shelf of five thin books as originally printed 1947-88.

Denis Donaghue provides an efficient introduction to this rather prickly author, whose moral backbone, no-nonsense manner, and ear for the telling phrase and the revealing pause made him one of America's most talented recorders of fictional priests, laity, and in two great stories a cat as the narrator of Midwestern foibles, dreamers, and ordinary folks, whether in rectories or social halls. His best stories do involve the clergy, as any reader of Powers will recognize, but these at their best emerge more vividly when included among the lesser attempts at themes such as baseball, the space race, race relations, wife-swapping, and a chillingly rendered Welcome Wagon lady.

Powers took his good time writing these stories, so take yours reading them. If you would like more advice on each of the thirty, take a look at my reviews of "Prince," "Presence," and "Look." There, I briefly comment upon each story in the order they were originally printed. This anthology preserves this order, but outside of an introduction adds no new stories to the small but, if you take the best of the clergy stories, memorable tales. As Powers explained why he as a layman wrote about clerics: a man taking out an insurance policy provides no real tension usually. But when a priest takes out an insurance policy, you have material for a story...

Blog images: cover of Stories; "Comma" (1986) by Mary Farl Powers, daughter of JFP.

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