Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Uncommon Powers (being a brief tribute to an unjustly neglected, great American writer)

Full disclosure: I have only read one out of five of his published books (2 novels, 3 short story collections).

But, it was enough to know what I, and 99% of all other Americans in my generation presumably, have been missing.

J. F. Powers is a name you never see on high school English curricula anymore, that is, if you ever did. He has been given that most cursed of all literary designations, that of "a writer's writer": which is another way of saying that his work is good enough to be admired by the likes of Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor, and will henceforth be damned to almost total obscurity. Well, I'm obviously no Bellow or O'Connor, but I'd still like to add my name to the list of those who perceive Powers as a writer of extraordinary gifts, and this after having read only his debut story collection, Prince of Darkness, which was published in 1943. This slim volume, with its 11 stories weighing in at barely over 150 pages, contains some absolutely remarkable writing, and better still, the kind of shrewd and valuable human insight that elevates the experience of reading to something approaching a spiritual exercise.

Powers is probably best known for his 1963 National Book Award-winning novel, Morte D'Urban, and for being a writer who liked to write about Catholic priests. To leave it there, however, would be to not even begin to understand the magnitude and worth of Powers' contribution to American -- nay, human -- letters. Those who knew and admired his work the most seem to unanimously claim that his best stuff is actually his short fiction, and some of the stories in Prince of Darkness made me indeed wonder if he could ever have written anything better (even with my being fully aware that this was Powers' debut). And within the world of his short fiction, it has been well testified that his best work can be found in his stories about priests.

Why this is so is anybody's guess, but here's mine: Powers, a writer who also happened to be a devout Catholic, was at the very peak of his form when he was exploring the conflict and interplay of the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, and (most importantly) the messy, soul-threateningly difficult balancing act of living out one's God-given vocation in a consumer-driven, materialistic, and utterly secular society. I think he could most vividly portray this 'balancing act' by presenting us with the daily struggles and sacrifices inherent to the lives of priests and religious, which he usually milked for plenty of comic, and occasionally tragic, insights. Yet in doing so, in showing us these by turns hilarious and painful (sometimes both, as in the end of the story 'The Valiant Woman') moments in the lives of people who have given their entire existences to serve God and others, Powers also shares some profound truths of what it means to live a spiritual life, and more significantly, what it costs. (More than one commentator has opined that it is probably no accident that the last word of his last novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, is "cross.")

But rather than having me go on and on in this post about what a great writer Powers is and why he should be read, I thought I would share two brief passages that amply demonstrate his comic genius and his deep spiritual insight -- both of which make his fiction exceptionally good for the heart and soul. One demonstrates Powers' genius as a satirist, the other his keen perception of spiritual truth.

To set up the first, from the title story "Prince of Darkness": Father Burner is a parish priest, a career "associate pastor" whose greatest ambition in life is to finally have handed to him the reins of the parish he knows he deserves and has worked so hard all his life to get. He is hoping that today, when he meets with his bishop, he will be re-assigned to a new parish where he will be named Pastor. As the story begins, it is morning and he is having his breakfast, when he is rudely interrupted by a man who turns out to be an insurance salesman...

"I should've known you'd be eating breakfast, Father. But I was at your Mass and I said to myself that must be Father Burner. Then I stayed a few minutes after Mass to make my thanksgiving."

"Fine," Father Burner said. "Breakfast?"

"Had it, Father, thanking you all the same. It's the regret of my life that I can't be a daily communicant. Doctor forbids it. 'Fast every day and see how long you last,' he tells me. But I do make it to Mass."

"Fine. You say you live in Father Desmond's parish?"

"Yes, Father. And sometimes I think Father Desmond does too much. All the societies to look after. Plus the Scouts and the Legion. Of course Father Kells being so olderly and all..."

"We're all busy these days."

"It's the poor parish priest's day that's never done, I always say, Father, not meaning to slight the ladies, God love 'em."

Father Burner's sausage fingers, spelling his impatience over and over, worked up sweat in the folds of the napkin which he kept in view to provoke an early departure. "About this matter you say Father Desmond thought I might be interested in----"

"The Plan, Father." Mr. Tracy lifted his seersucker trousers by the creases, crossed his shiny two-tone shoes, and rolled warmly forward. "Father..."

Father Burner met his look briefly. He was wary of the fatherers. A backslider he could handle, it was the old story, but a red-hot believer, especially a talkative one, could be a devilish nuisance. This kind might be driven away only by prayer and fasting, and he was not adept at either.

"I guess security's one thing we're all after."

Father Burner grunted. Mr. Tracy was far too familiar to suit him. He liked his parishioners to be retiring, dumb or frightened. There were too many references made to the priest's hard lot. Not so many poor souls as all that passed away in the wee hours, nor was there so much bad weather to brave. Mr. Tracy's heart bled for priests. That in itself is a suspicious thing in a layman. It all led up to the Plan.

"Here's the Plan, Father..."

The second passage is not a funny one, and it is in some respects an anamoly in Powers' work. Usually he did not confront the realities of spiritual life directly, but liked to explore them indirectly in the harsher light of the trivial, mundane details of every day life. But in the story "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," he reveals to us the thoughts of a dying Franciscan priest (Didymus) as he reflects back on what he perceives are the failures and inadequacies of a life spent doing ministry for strangers, while neglecting important family ties. He is very near death, and I find it fascinating to read what Powers has him think at this moment when he is hanging by a thread over the abyss of the Infinite...

He was surprised to find he wanted nothing in the world for himself at last. This may have been the first time he found his will amenable to the Divine. He had never been less himself and more the saint. Yet now, so close to sublimity, or perhaps only tempted to believe so (the Devil is most wily at the deathbed), he was beset by the grossest distractions. They were to be expected, he knew, as indelible in the order of things: the bingo game going on under the Cross for the seamless garment of the Son of Man: everywhere the sign of the contradiction, and always. When would he cease to be surprised by it?...

...Then he saw the full moon had let down a ladder of light through the window. He could see the snow, strangely blue, falling outside. So sensitive was his mind and eye (because his body, now faint, no longer blurred his vision?), he could count the snowflakes, all of them separately, before they drifted, winding, below the sill.

With the same wonderful clarity, he saw what he had made of his life. He saw himself tied down, caged, stunted in his apostolate, seeking the crumbs, the little pleasure, neglecting the source, always knowing death changes nothing, only immortalizes... and still ever lukewarm. In trivial attachments, in love of things, was death, no matter the appearance of life. In the highest attachment only, no matter the appearance of death, was life. He had always known this truth, but now he was feeling it. Unable to move his hand, only his lips, and hardly breathing, was it too late to act?

"Open the window Titus," he whispered.

And suddenly he could pray. Hail Mary... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death... finally the time to say, pray for me now -- the hour of my death, amen. Lest he deceive himself at the very end that this was the answer to a lifetime of praying for a happy death, happy because painless, he tried to turn his thoughts from himself, to join them to God, thinking how at last he did -- didn't he now? -- prefer God above all else. But ashamedly not sure he did, perhaps only fearing hell, with an uneasy sense of justice he put himself foremost among the wise in their own generation, the perennials seeking after God when doctor, lawyer, and bank fails...

I hope these two passages will reveal something of the depth, insight and sheer talent of J. F. Powers' writing. I will certainly be reading more of his work, because as these excerpts prove, he is an artist plumbing after truth about God and man, and the fallen world in which they try, often in vain but occasionally with success, to find each other, to connect.

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