International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Book Review
Stories Of J.F. Powers
ISBN: 13: 9780940322226
Dan Schneider review
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
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 youre 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.
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.
Powers 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
Powerss eye is ruthless, with something of a childs icy,
microscopic freshness, and with fascination one senses behind his work
the weight of a childhood spent in Catholic schools.
...[Powerss] small output
.has attracted something of
a cult following. New York Times
In short, theres a reason the average reader never heard of Powers,
and that is hes simply not that good a prosist. That the grossly
overrated Irish short story writer Frank OConnor 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 DUrban (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
Hailed by Frank OConnor as one of the greatest living storytellers,
J.F. Powers, who died in 1999, belongs in the succession of outstanding
twentieth-century writersamong them Hemingway, Welty, [Flannery]
OConnor, and Carverwho 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 Johns 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
characters 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 its twenty dull pages
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. Its as if Powers
turned on a video camera of a card game and expected some great metaphor
of the human plight to materialize. It doesnt, and the whole tale
plays like a reject from Americas 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
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 doesnt
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 hed
eaten his peaches, while youre 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 Id 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 brothers death and his own salvation. He Dont 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 readers 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
Theres 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- its 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. Itll fail. Lets
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.
Texas Stories Of Nelson Algren
Reading The Texas Stories Of Nelson Algren, a 1995 book from
The University Of Texas Press, and edited and introduced by Bettina
Drew, was an odd experience because a) the quality of the tales was
very hit and miss and b) the book was not really a book, at all
The Collected Stories Of
In reading The Collected Stories Of Carson McCullers I was
expecting good, and possibly great, things. After all, her first published
novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a near great novel.
David Leavitts Collected
if the word hack had not already existed, it would have to have
been invented for a writer like Leavitt.
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