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Analysis of J. F. Powers’s Stories

The most frequently reprinted of J. F. Powers’s (July 8, 1917 – June 12, 1999) short stories and therefore the best known are not the title stories of his two collections—“Prince of Darkness” and “The Presence of Grace”—but rather “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” “The Valiant Woman,” and “The Forks”—stories that are firmly rooted in social observation and realistic detail but have at their center specifically moral and theological issues. Powers 876 is a Catholic writer, not a writer who happens to be a Catholic or one who proselytizes for the Church, but rather (as Evelyn Waugh has said) one whose “art is everywhere infused and directed by his Faith.”

For Powers the central issue is how in the midst of a fallen world to live up to the high ideals of the Church. Since that issue is most sharply seen in the lives of those who have chosen the religious life as their vocation, parish priests, curates, friars, nuns, and archbishops dominate Powers’s stories. As might be expected of a religious writer who admires, as Powers does, the art of James Joyce and who learned the satiric mode from Sinclair Lewis and Evelyn Waugh, Powers’s stories are frequently ironic and often satiric portraits of clerics who fail to measure up to the ideals of their priestly vocation. Many are straightforward satires.

Prince of Darkness

“Prince of Darkness,” for example, is the fictional portrait of a priest, Father Burner, who in his gluttony, his ambition for material rewards and professional success, and his lack of charity toward sinners in the confessional, reveals himself to be a modern incarnation of the devil himself. In opposition to Father Burner is the Archbishop, an elderly cleric in worn-out slippers who in the proper spirit of moral firmness and Christian compassion reassigns Father Burner not to the pastorate he covets but to another parish assistant’s role where, presumably, his power of darkness will be held in check.

The DevilWas the Joker

“The DevilWas the Joker” from Powers’s second collection resembles “Prince of Darkness” in theme and conception, except here the satanic figure is a layman who has been hired by a religious order to sell its publication in Catholic parishes. Mac, the salesman—“Fat and fifty or so, with a candy-pink face, sparse orange hair, and popeyes”—hires a young former seminarian to travel about with him as his companion-driver. Myles Flynn, the former seminarian, also becomes the drinking companion and confidant of Mac, who gradually reveals himself to be totally cynical about the religious wares he is peddling, and who is, moreover, neither religious nor Catholic. Mac exploits the priests he encounters on his travels and attempts to use Myles to further his financial interests. As a way of making a sale, for example, he will frequently “take the pledge,” that is, promise to refrain from alcohol. In return, he usually manages to extract from the priest to whom he made the pledge a large order for his wares. One day, after drunkenly confessing to Myles that he is not Catholic, he tries to repair the damage he imagines has been done to his position by trying to get Myles to baptize him, alleging that Myles has been responsible for his sudden conversion. It is through Myles’s response that Powers provides the perspective for understanding and judging Mac. Myles perceives that Mac “was the serpent, the nice old serpent with Glen-plaid markings, who wasn’t very poisonous.” In conclusion, Myles not only refuses to baptize Mac but also leaves him and attempts once more to get back into the seminary.

“Prince of Darkness” and “The Devil Was the Joker” are both loosely constructed revelations of character rather than stories of conflict and action. Powers’s two bestknown pieces are also among the best things he has done, including those in Look How the Fish Live. Both are told from the point of view of a priest caught in a moral dilemma.

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The Forks

In “The Forks,” a young curate, Father Eudex, assistant to a Monsignor in a middle-class parish, is presented with a check from a manufacturing company that has been having labor trouble. Father Eudex, born on a farm, a reader of the Catholic Worker, and a sympathizer with the strikers, regards the check as hush money and therefore finds it unacceptable. His superior, the Monsignor, who drives a long black car like a politician’s and is friendly with bankers and businessmen, suggests that Father Eudex use the check as down payment on a good car. The Monsignor is a man of impeccable manners, concerned with the appearance of things, with laying out a walled garden, with the perfection of his salad, and disturbed by the fact that Father Eudex strips off his shirt and helps the laborer spade up the garden, and that he uses the wrong fork at dinner. Quite clearly the Monsignor represents to Powers a modern version of the secularized church, Father Eudex, the traditional and, in this story, powerless Christian virtues. At the end of the story, Father Eudex, who has considered sending the check back to the company or giving it to the strikers’ fund, merely tears it up and flushes it down the toilet, aware that every other priest in town will find some “good” use for it. True goodness in Powers’s stories tends to be helpless in the face of such worldiness.

The Valiant Woman

In “The Valiant Woman” the same issue is raised in the conflict between a priest and his housekeeper. The occasion in this story is the priest’s fifty-ninth birthday celebration, a dinner from which his one remaining friend and fellow priest is driven by the insistent and boorish presence of the housekeeper. The theological and moral issue is dramatized by the priest’s dilemma: According to church law he can rid himself of the housekeeper, but he can only do so by violating the spirit of Christian charity. The housekeeper, being totally unconscious of the moral implications of her acts, naturally has the advantage. Like the wily mosquito who bites the priest, her acts are of the flesh only, while his, being conscious and intellectual, are of the will. The priest cannot bring himself to fire her, and so in a helpless rage at being bitten by a mosquito (after having been, in effect, stung by the housekeeper), he wildly swings a rolled up newspaper at the mosquito and knocks over and breaks a bust of Saint Joseph.

When summarized, Powers’s stories sound forbidding, when, in fact, they are— despite the underlying seriousness—delightfully humorous. About the housekeeper in “The Valiant Woman,” for instance, Powers has the priest think:

[She] was clean. And though she cooked poorly, could not play the organ, would not take up the collection in an emergency and went to card parties, and told all— even so, she was clean. She washed everything. Sometimes her underwear hung down beneath her dress like a paratrooper’s pants, but it and everything she touched was clean. She washed constantly. She was clean.

Not all of Powers’s stories have been about priests. Four of those in his first collection deal with racial and religious prejudice; three are about blacks (“The Trouble,” about a race riot, “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” in which black entertainers in a northern nightclub are badgered by a visitor from Mississippi and quit their jobs, and “The Eye,” about a lynching of an innocent black), and one about anti-Semitism (“Renner”). Two stories from The Presence of Grace are also not explicitly religious: “The Poor Thing” and “Blue Island.” Even these apparently secular stories arise out of the same moral concern that may be seen more clearly in the overtly religious ones.

The Poor Thing

In “The Poor Thing” a disabled woman, Dolly, who goes through the motions of being religious, is revealed as a pious hypocrite when she slyly exploits an elderly spinster, forcing her to serve for little pay as her constant companion. The elderly woman had been talked into accepting the position in the first place and then, when she tried to leave, was falsely accused by Dolly of having stolen from her. The woman then has the choice of either returning to Dolly or having her reputation at the employment office ruined.

Blue Island

In “Blue Island” the oppressor is a woman who sells pots and pans by arranging “coffees” in other women’s houses and then arriving to “demonstrate” her wares. Under the guise of neighborly concern for a young woman who has recently moved into the neighborhood and is unsure of herself (and ashamed of her origins), she persuades the young woman to have a coffee to which all of the important neighbor women are invited; then the saleswoman arrives with her wares, and the young woman, the victim, stricken by the deception practiced on her and on the neighbors she has tried to cultivate, rushes to her bedroom and weeps, while downstairs the neighbor women file out, leaving her alone with her oppressor. In both “The Poor Thing” and “Blue Island,” Powers also shows that the victims participate in their victimization, the spinster through her pride and the young woman in “Blue Island” by denying her past and attempting to be something she is not.

Lions, Harts, Leaping Does

Powers’s best stories are undoubtedly those that bring the moral and religious issue directly into the main action. The story still most widely admired is the one written when Powers was twenty-five that established his early reputation as a master of the short story: “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does.” The popularity of this story may result not only from the high level of its art but also from the way it deals so gently with the issues and creates in Father Didymus and in the simple Friar Titus two appealing characters. Indeed, one of Powers’s major achievements is his ability in many of his stories to create characters with the vividness and complexity one expects only from the longer novel. For this reason, if for no other, the stories of J. F. Powers will continue to engage the attention of discriminating readers.

Major Works
Novels: Morte d’Urban, 1962; Wheat That Springeth Green, 1988.

Bibliography
Evans, Fallon, ed. J. F. Powers. St. Louis: Herder, 1968.Gussow, Mel. “J. F. Powers, 81, Dies.” The New York Times, June 17, 1999, p. C23.
Hagopian, John V. J. F. Powers. New York: Twayne, 1968.Long, J. V. “Clerical Character(s).” Commonweal, May 8, 1998, 11-14.
McCarthy, Colman. “The Craft of J. F. Powers.” The Washington Post, June 12, 1993, p. A21.
McInerny, Dennis Q., and William Hoffman. “J. F. Powers.” In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Revised Edition, edited by Carl Rollyson. Vol. 5. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “J. F. Powers: Uncollected Stories, Essays, and Interviews, 1943-1979.” Bulletin of Bibliography 44 (March, 1987): 38-39.
Powers, J. F. “The Alphabet God Uses.” Interview by Anthony Schmitz. Minnesota Monthly 22 (December, 1988): 34-39.
Powers, Katherine A. “Reflections of J. F. Powers: Author, Father, Clear-Eyed Observer.” The Boston Globe, July 18, 1999, p. K4.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Short Story

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