Review Of The Stories Of J.F. Powers

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/27/09


  Every so often there is an artist that has a great reputation, yet a small cult following, that turns out to truly be a great artist. Then, there are all the other times that one recognizes that the repute for greatness is merely the mistaken dementia of the cultic ideologues. Think of Henry Darger, in the most extreme. No, The Stories Of J.F. Powers does not reveal that much of a schism between the reality and the beliefs of the deluded, but when the book comes with such blurbs as this, you know you’re in trouble:


  Powers is a genuine original. Read him….for the pleasures he bestows of ear and eye, but read him too for the supreme trustworthiness of his vision, a trust earned by impeccable craft, and by a balance perfectly struck between a cutting irony and a beleaguered faith. -Mary Gordon


  A one man show at the top-level of short-story writing. Of a rare, indeed almost unique perfection among short stories of this half-century. -Sean O’Faolain


  Power’s prose is consistently superb - rare but not thinned by mandarinism, richly metaphorical but never unbudgeted in its wealth, each sentence a pondered finality. The slightest phrases bloom.… -James Wood, The New Yorker


  Powers’s eye is ruthless, with something of a child’s icy, microscopic freshness, and with fascination one senses behind his work the weight of a childhood spent in Catholic schools.… -Donna Tartt, Harper’s


  ...[Powers’s] small output….has attracted something of a cult following. New York Times

  In short, there’s a reason the average reader never heard of Powers, and that is he’s simply not that good a prosist. That the grossly overrated Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor also praises Powers’ work is a warning sign to the enlightened, as well.

  James Farl Powers (1917-1999) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, and grew up a Roman Catholic in a Protestant town. After attending Northwestern University he worked as a hospital orderly during World War Two, being a conscientious objector. In 1951 he and his family moved to Ireland. He wrote only three books of short tales in his life: Prince Of Darkness And Other Stories (1947), The Presence Of Grace (1956), and Look How Fish Live (1973). Morte D’Urban (1963) was a novel which won a National Book Award.

  Powers wrote obsessive little tales about Catholic priests, yet they were so detached from reality that anyone living now, through the rampant pedophilia scandals, or who may have seen the diabolical nuns of The Magdalene Sisters film infamy, would have to laugh at the simplistic moralism of the works. That, plus they lack any characterization of depth, any real action, and are dreadfully void of anything resembling imagery and poesy, makes his cult all the more odd. He is equated with James Joyce, but one can only believe that is because he was an Irishman. In the Introduction to the book, Denis Donoghue, claims that Powers is an American writer, in stark contrast to those who seek lineage with Joyce:


  Hailed by Frank O’Connor as one of ‘the greatest living storytellers,’ J.F. Powers, who died in 1999, belongs in the succession of outstanding twentieth-century writers—among them Hemingway, Welty, [Flannery] O’Connor, and Carver—who have given to the short story an unmistakably American cast.

  Well, only Carver, among that quartet, could claim greatness as a short story writer, and he was wildly scattershot in his art.

  Powers taught for many years at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and most of his tales are set in the Midwest of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The stories are run of the mill, and nothing really happens in them. Now, when one states that, it can be for the good or the ill. In the good sense, the tale where nothing happens captures a transfigurative moment for either the character or the reader. there is a reminiscence, a brief interlude, and all that was before in the character’s existence has changed, usually for the better. There may be wonderful poetry and descriptions, but there is no grand plot- no quest, no love tale, no derring do. On the downside, in bad stories where nothing happens, the action just unrolls. The characters do ordinary things, and nothing great occurs. Think of a bad singer, even if singing a great song. Everything that occurs in such tales bores one shitless, and there are no great lessons to be learned, no stirring portrait cast, no imagery that sears, and no felicitous phrasings nor conversations that stick with you. Every page seems like it’s twenty dull pages long.

  Powers’ tales are the latter case.  In Renner, a rare non-priest tale, set in a restaurant, seven characters, a narrator, Renner, Emil the waiter, a patron named Ross, a drunken Irishman (a huge leap!), a German, and a fat man simply play cards. They then break up, and disperse. yet, there are no revelations in the moment. It’s as if Powers turned on a video camera of a card game and expected some great metaphor of the human plight to materialize. It doesn’t, and the whole tale plays like a reject from America’s Funniest Videos. What works for the Lowest Common Denominator medium of television does not translate into the higher art of wordsmithing, unless the writer understands that there must be things working underneath the patina of narrative.

  In The Valiant Woman a priest wants to fire his housekeeper, Mrs Stoner, because she is a bad person- a shrew, a bully, and worse. Yet, strictures dictate he is stuck with her, so he perdures. Endless evenings of card games drone on, and always the priest loses. In his impotent rage, the priest tries to kill a mosquito, but destroys something precious to him. This could very well be a tale of the first kind, but the flatness and stupor of the writing suffocate it, as this at the end exemplifies:


  ‘What is it, Father? Are you hurt?’

  ‘Mosquitoes- damn it! And only the female bites!’

  Mrs. Stoner, after a moment, said, ‘Shame on you, Father. She needs the blood for her eggs.’

  He dropped the magazine and lunged at the mosquito with his bare hand.

  She went back to her room, saying, ‘Pshaw, I thought it was burglars murdering you in your bed.’

  He lunged again.’

  The scene is ripe for a revelation, but none comes. The whole scene merely recapitulates the stupidity of the two main characters, and falls into that sort of artistic urge where someone tries to justify boring writing buy stating boredom was the effect desired. Sorry, that doesn’t wash, for a tale must engage on some level, and simply portraying two dolts unalloyed is not that interesting.

  This tale is symptomatic of all the stories, and all the idiotic, and worse- dull, lives of the priests that somehow fascinated Powers and his acolytes. The priesthood, as depicted by Powers, exists in a sort of Oz-like irrreality, where politics and sexual repression are nowhere to be found, yet moneygrubbing over collection plates, backstabbing, golfing, and drunkenness seem to be all the rage, and even celebrated. In One Of Them a curate named Father Simpson, tries to get the spare key to the rectory from another priest. Thus begins a little game between the two, where the dueling pastors try to one up each other:


  ‘Father,’ said Simpson when he’d eaten his peaches, ‘while you’re away, if I have to go out at night- hospital or something- and the church is locked, I can knock or ring, I know, but I’d hate to disturb Ms. Burke, if you know what I mean, Father?’

  The pastor nodded, as if he did know, but bowed his head in silent grace.

  So did Simpson then, and, when they rose from the table, did not forget the pamphlet by his plate. ‘So I should knock or ring, Father?

  ‘Ring,’ said the pastor.

  Again, while this writing is not inherently bad, what surrounds it does nothing to elevate it from banal dialogue. And the whole ‘drama’ over the keys is neither humorous nor deep, just dull.

  And this dullness of life seems to fascinate Powers, almost the way the Andy Warhol Factory was wooed by the dull. Reading Powers’ tales is like watching an experimental film by Warhol, where one is supposed to be rapt by seven hours of watching a gum wrapper. And, that dullness is not put in the service of satire, it just lays, as evidenced by the scene from The Valiant Woman. Other tales include Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, which follows an old priest who tries to comes to terms with his brother’s death and his own salvation. He Don’t Plant Cotton is about a Depression Era racial incident. In Dawn, a priest finds an unaddressed letter in the collection plate addressed to The Pope- Personal. He gives it to his bishop, who says to find the sender if possible but not to open it. The priest finds the letter writer is the idiotic Mrs. Anton, who tells him the envelope held a dollar. She did not mail it for she distrusted the church hierarchy in Rome, yet sees the locals are just as idiotic. If only there was a dram of humor to go with the tale, but, nothing really happens after the letter writer is revealed. Prince Of Darkness is about a masochistic priest who has a crisis of faith. You see that Powers has a drastically delimited worldview in these thirty tales of stasis and predictability- including on etale written in play form. They never expand the reader’s world, and never take any narrative traction. While reading each excruciating story I recalled the very ABC like writing in small stories on colored vocabulary cards that I used to read in elementary school. They are clunky, dull, listless, morality plays too larded with stereotypes (especially drunken Irishmen).

  There’s a truism that few writers like to acknowledge, and that is that talent and accomplishment as a writer have absolutely nothing to do with getting published- it’s who you know (or blow, to the cynic- or realist!), yet everything to do with staying in print. Quality perdures over generations, while those with small talent and worldviews inevitably fade. Thus, why Powers did. This book is the predictable last gasp of his acolytes attempts to revive him. It’ll fail. Let’s hope it does, for if not, a new paradigm in writing, and a baleful one, at that, will be upon us. Such dreck as The Stories Of J.F. Powers deserves to be forgotten. What?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]


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