The Stories of J.F. Powers (New York Review Books Classics), p.1J.F. Powers
J. F. POWERS (1917–1999) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, and studied at Northwestern University while holding a variety of jobs in Chicago and working on his writing. He published his first stories in The Catholic Worker and, as a pacifist, spent thirteen months in prison during World War II. Powers was the author of three collections of short stories and two novels—Morte D’Urban, which won the National Book Award, and Wheat That Springeth Green—all of which have been reissued by New York Review Books. He lived in Ireland and the United States and taught for many years at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
DENIS DONOGHUE is University Professor at New York University, where he holds the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters. He is the author of many books, including Connoisseurs of Chaos, Reading America, We Irish, and Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls.
THE STORIES OF
J. F. POWERS
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
This is a New York Review Book
Published by The New York Review of Books
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Copyright © 2000 by NYREV, Inc.
Stories copyright © by J.F. Powers
Introduction copyright © 2000 Denis Donoghue
All Rights Reserved
Excerpt from Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay courtesy of the Literary Representative for the Works of Claude McKay, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. “Ol’ Man River” Words and Music by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein copyright © 1927 Universal-PolyGram International Publishing, a division of Universal Studios, Inc. Copyright Renewed (ASCAP) International Copyright Secured.
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Cover image: Thomas Abercrombie, Ice-Fishing Contest on White Bear Lake, Minnesota, 1958; NGS Image Collection
Cover design: Katy Homans
The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:
Powers, J. F. (James Farl), 1917–
Collected Stories / by J. F. Powers ; introduction by Denis Donoghue
ISBN 0-940322-22-6 (acid-free paper)
1. Catholic Church—Middle West—Clergy—Fiction. 2. Middle West—Religious life and customs—Fiction. 3. Middle West—Social life and customs—Fiction. 4. United States—Social life and customs—20th century —Fiction. I. Donoghue, Denis. II. Title.
PS3566.O84 A6 2000
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THE STORIES OF J. F. POWERS
The Lord’s Day
Lions, Harts, Leaping Does
He Don’t Plant Cotton
The Valiant Woman
The Old Bird, A Love Story
Prince of Darkness
Death of a Favorite
The Poor Thing
The Devil Was the Joker
A Losing Game
Defection of a Favorite
The Presence of Grace
Look How the Fish Live
One of Them
HE WAS James Farl Powers on his birth certificate and Jim Powers to his friends. In the history of modern fiction J. F. Powers (1917–1999) was a distinctive figure, a loner, emerging from quietness every few years when he published a book or won a prize, but otherwise content to mind his own professional business. He is sometimes described as a writer’s writer, meaning that he was an artist too good to gratify the most casual reader, but he was also a reader’s writer, if we assume a reader who thinks of fiction as intelligent art rather than low entertainment. Such writers tend not to be abundant, they work hard on their sentences. Powers published only a few books—three collections of short stories, Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories (1947), The Presence of Grace (1956), and Look How the Fish Live (1975), the contents of which have been gathered in this volume, and two novels, Morte D’Urban (1962) and Wheat that Springeth Green (1988). But these are treasured, guarded with jealousy by those who know of them. News of their quality is passed from one adept to another, like word of an idyllic village in an unfashionable part of France, not to be disclosed to the ordinary camera-flashing tourist. Now that Powers is dead, he has become his admirers, as W.H. Auden said of the poet Yeats.
I met Powers only once. He and his wife and children lived for several years in Ireland, in a small seaside town about seventeen miles south of Dublin called Greystones. (It is clearly the Ballydoo of his short story “Tinkers.”) He rarely left the town, even to sample the joys of Dublin. But he became friends with the Irish novelist and short-story writer Sean O’Faolain, who lived a few miles away in an even more salubrious place, Killiney. I lived in Mount Merrion, a suburb on the south side of Dublin. My social life was meager, so I accepted with enthusiasm an invitation from O’Faolain to come to lunch in Killiney. Jim Powers would be there.
I reached Killiney rather early. Before Powers arrived, O’Faolain passed the time making mild fun of him. Did I know that Powers spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon wondering whether or not he should replace it with a semicolon? O’Faolain’s teasing didn’t stop when Powers rang the doorbell. “I’ve been telling Donoghue about your attentiveness to commas and semicolons.” Powers smiled and indicated by his silence that he was not inclined to argue the question. O’Faolain was an amiable host, and a good writer when he cared to be, but I’m sure he never worried about the relative merits of a comma and a semicolon. It was said that he wrote two thousand words a day whether he felt well or ill. I recall nothing of the conversation at lunch, beyond an impression that O’Faolain, his wife Eileen, and I talked a lot and to no memorable purpose. Powers nodded his head from time to time, either in agreement on the point being made or to indicate the degree of his indifference to the issue.
Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963 and gained for Powers recognition as a novelist. But he seems to me by native gift a short-story writer. I recall getting a letter from the poet William Carlos Williams in which he said that writers have each their own natural breath. Some take short breaths, others long. Whitman took long breaths, Emily Dickinson short ones. It required talent to judge what your natural form of breathing was. I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story. He tried for the longer breath of the novel twice because, I assume, he wanted to deal with a bigger cast of characters and a wider screen. But I think his talent was happiest in the concentration, the focus, of the short story. It was as if he thought life most clearly disclosed in the telling anecdote.
In one of the prefaces to the New York edition of his fiction, Henry James spoke of his experience in writing short stories. He recalled that his
Powers observed the same formal policy. The outer edge was for him the everyday visible world, full of rectories, priests, housekeepers, cars, cats, parishioners. The center, however, bristled with little disclosures, nuances of personality, prejudice, and mood. In “The Valiant Woman” Father Firman wants to get rid of his housekeeper, Mrs Stoner. She is a holy terror, a predictable aggravation, runs his life for him, gives him minor hell. But he knows that he can’t get rid of her. The oppressive thought occurs to him that she treats him as if she were his wife; except that she sleeps in the guest room. Every evening, before going to bed, they play cards: “the final murderous hour in which all they wanted to say—all he wouldn’t and all she couldn’t—came out in the cards.” Mrs Stoner always wins. “Skunked you! . . . Had enough, huh!” From the outside in: all the possibilities are contained in the scene as given, including the rage with which Father Firman, in his bedroom last thing one night, tries to swat a mosquito, misses, and smashes the statue of St Joseph on the bookcase. Powers compresses the embarrassments of a lifetime into a few episodes. The story he tells is not just short; it delights in its brevity.
The tragicomedy of these stories about priests arises from a further constraint that Powers imposes on himself. The priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it. We are not told what it means that as young men they responded to a vocation, a calling. We don’t see them in their relation to God. Might they just as well have become insurance agents? Not quite. French fiction on similar themes—that of Mauriac, Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest—is deeply preoccupied with the inner life, with consciences, temptations, and doubts, with religious and moral scruples. But in Powers’s stories and novels the spiritual atmosphere is entirely different; it is not expressed but implied. His priests are small people in a big world, and he never forgets the spaciousness of that world, so strongly felt in the Midwest where many of the stories are set, in his concentration upon them. But they are not little in the eyes of God. Powers impresses upon us that no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still a relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.
In “One of Them” the curate, Father Simpson, has long tried to extract from the pastor a spare key for the front door of the rectory. The pastor is going away for a few days, and the question of a key arises again over the dinner table. As usual, the pastor has left an edifying pamphlet on Father Simpson’s plate, without comment:
“Father,” said Simpson, coming to dessert, and remembering how he’d phrased the question before (“Father, how long will you be gone?”) rephrased it, “will you be gone long?”
“Not long,” said the pastor, as before.
“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.
It is the priests’ pretense that every constituent of their lives is transparent that gives this exchange its comic poignancy: “. . . but bowed his head in silent grace.” Look how the fish live: look how the priests live. What has happened to the impulses and the spiritual visitations, the qualms and scruples, that must have directed curate and pastor in earlier years toward the priesthood? And now they are embroiled in a little play of power about a key. Was it for this that Christ was crucified and Paul set up a church? James, in writing “The Turn of the Screw,” determined that instead of supplying instances of the evil deeds of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, he would “make the reader think the evil.” “Make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.” Similarly, Powers—precisely by keeping everything he shows visible, external, and conventional—makes the reader think the forces that are not on show, the spiritual experiences that started out so compellingly and have issued in these penuries.
Not all of these stories are about priests. My favorite story, “Renner,” is entirely secular: we are shown an eating house in a Midwestern city. There are seven characters: the narrator, his colleague Renner, the waiter Emil, a patron named Ross, a not-entirely-sober Irishman, a German, and “the fat one.” Nothing much happens, there is no plot, there are no dramatic climaxes or crises. Some of the characters are merely playing cards at a table. They are nearly anonymous. But they, and the lives they lead, are revealed by small gestures and silences, minute changes of tone. It is not a typical story of Powers’s. His talent may have been startled to find itself taking this form. But the story is, in its quiet way, thrilling. The first time I read it, I knew I was reading the work of a master. A work of literature is a book you’d be happy to read again and again—like the book in your hand.
THE STORIES OF J. F. POWERS
THE LORD’S DAY
THE TREES HAD the bad luck to be born mulberry and to attract bees. It was not the first time, Father said, and so you could not say he was being unfair. It was, in fact, the second time that a bee had come up and stung him on the front porch. What if it had been a wasp? How did he know it was one of the mulberry bees? He knew. That was all. And now, Sister, if you’ll just take the others into the house with you, we’ll get down to work. She had ordered the others into the convent, but had stayed to plead privately for the trees. The three big ones must go. He would spare the small one until such time as it grew up and became a menace.
Adjusting the shade, which let the sun through in withered cracks like the rivers on a map, she peeked out at the baking schoolyard, at the three trees. Waves of heat wandered thirstily over the pebbles, led around by the uncertain wind. She could see the figure of Father walking the heat waves, a fat vision in black returning to the scene of the crime, grabbing the axe away from the janitor . . . Here, John, let me give her the first lick! . . . And so, possibly fancying himself a hundred years back, the most notable person at the birth of a canal or railroad, and with the children for his amazed audience, he had dealt the first blow. Incredible priest!
She left the room and went downstairs. They were waiting in the parlor. She knew at a glance that one was missing. Besides herself, they were twelve—the apostles. It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny. In the same way she, as the leader of the apostles, feared the implication as blasphemous. It was not a very good joke for the convent, but it was fine to tell lay people, to let them know there was life there.
She entered the little chapel off the parlor. Here the rug was thicker and the same wide-board floor made to shine. She knelt for a moment and then, genuflecting in the easy, jointless way that comes from years of it, she left. Sister Eleanor, the one missing, followed her into the parlor.
“All right, Sisters, let’s go.” She led them through the sagging house, which daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted, and over the splintery
Going under the basketball standards she thought they needed only a raven or two to become gibbets in the burning sun. A pebble lit in the lacings of her shoe. She stopped to free it. She believed she preferred honest dust to manufactured pebbles. Dust lent itself to philosophizing and was easier on the children’s knees.
They climbed the cement steps, parting the dish towels on the porch as portieres, and entered the rectory. The towels were dry and the housekeeper would be gone. She sensed a little longing circulate among the sisters as they filed into the kitchen. It was all modern, the after for the before they would always have at the convent. She did not care for it, however. It hurt the eyes, like a field of sunny snow. A cockroach turned around and ran the other way on the sink. At least he was not modern.
The dining room was still groggy from Sunday dinner. They drew chairs up to the table in which the housekeeper had inserted extra leaves before taking the afternoon off. The table was covered with the soiled cloth that two of them would be washing tomorrow. They sighed. There, in the middle of the table, in canvas sacks the size of mailbags, were the day’s three collections, the ledgers and index cards for recording individual contributions. They sat down to count.
With them all sitting around the table, it seemed the time for her to pray, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts . . .”
Sister Antonia, her assistant, seized one of the sacks and emptied it out on the table. “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Sister Antonia rammed her red hands into the pile and leveled it off. “Money, money, money.”
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