J. F. Powers Essay - Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 8)

Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 8)

Powers, J(ames) F(arl) 1917–

Powers is an American novelist and short story writer. Writing in a sharp, precise, and witty style, he finds much of his subject matter in his Catholic background, for he is concerned with, as F. W. Dupee says, "the contradictions that beset Catholicism, in practice if not in theory, because of its claim to an earthly as well as a divine mission and authority." Powers is a recipient of the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[One] cannot help wishing that Powers were open to the risks of imperfection, that he did not keep his shrewd and funny scrutinies so tightly contained. There is always a lingering poignance of unexplored possibility in everything he has written. How much more, we feel, he could do with the hip young sophisticated priests of the '60s and their puzzled elders! Instead, Powers has padded Look How the Fish Live with bits of trivia—a misfired joke about moon exploration, some feeble cautionary tales of adultery and hypocrisy—better consigned to oblivion. If only he would engage his brilliant talent and intelligence in a reckless, even outrageous spirit, daring perhaps to move outside his predictable boundaries. (p. 16)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 13, 1975.

Unfortunately for Powers's admirers (and I confess to be one) his new book is a disappointment. "Look How the Fish Live" is a thin collection of stories from a writer who seems not to have grown in the last 12 years. It is literary retread, a return to safe places peopled by safe characters….

In "Look How the Fish Live" the hand of a master short story craftsman is plainly evident, the impeccable form, a precision of rich detail, the tone of gentle, pinprick satire always in perfect control, the admirable indulgence toward his characters that is a J. F. Powers trademark. But Powers has failed to heed an author's primary responsibility: to observe and interpret the real and changing world about him. Powers has not expanded his perimeters, encompassing new realities and ideas, but has merely shifted them about, creating new configurations within the old. The content of the majority of these stories is depressingly familiar, as abstemious as a Roman cleric's sex life is supposed to be. Little—with the exception of one story, "Tinkers," set in Ireland and about "America's thriftiest living author" and his family, and the title story "Look How the Fish Live," …—dares venture beyond the inward-looking churchly world. Powers seems determined to codify the rules for an American theocracy, glorifying provincialism, glorifying parochialism, glorifying an archaic place of privilege and prerogative that has set a good many Catholics running away. Turning inward for protection, then? Perhaps. J. F. Powers seems to have put the turbulent, politicized late 1960's and early 1970's—of the Berrigans and other priestly activists who so severely buffeted his beloved Church—on his personal Index. (p. 14)

Powers professes too little, is cautious to the point of exasperation, measures the beat of his world in tiny pats when a good hard slam is what it needs. His real ability to humanize his characters is demonstrated only when he chooses to mark the depths of their personal loneliness…. "Look How the Fish Live" mirrors … few of the author's marvelous talents. (p. 16)

Tom McHale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1975.

Powers's heart, never large, seems to have shrunk, and the result is an unpleasant combination of triviality and sourness. Most of the stories [in Look How the Fish Live] are, like his earlier ones, about priests, most are neat as a pin, but the ritual noncommunication of pastors with curates, of bishops with pastors, becomes thin…. He becomes a little untidy only in "Priestly Fellowship" where he lets a priest just sound off—"All this talk of community, communicating, and so on—it was just whistling in the dark. 'Life's not a cookout by Bruegel the Elder and people know it.'" The result is the only interesting story in the book; the ones that aren't about priests are dreadful. Going back to the stories in The Presence of Grace (1956) just to check, I found a lot of mere neatness, but there is a saving wit there that is all but gone now. (p. 31)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), November 13, 1975.

Perhaps when the roll is called up yonder, J. F. Powers' name will assume its rightful place in the ranks of contemporary American writers, but as matters currently stand he is an author curiously without honor in his own country…. J. F. Powers is not a name to conjur with precisely because he is one of the most accomplished practitioners of the short story still alive and writing in America today.

Whatever the reasons (and they are many), mastery of the short story constitutes one of the swiftest and surest roads to creative invisibility that this country has ever devised. (p. 33)

[Look How the Fish Live] is a book not without its flaws—or, rather, one large flaw, in that five of the ten stories are little more than landfill, evidently stuck in to pad the volume…. It is the other five stories that constitute the real book, and they are pure, unalloyed gold.

Centering on a midwestern priest named Joe, his young curate Bill, Bill's modernist fellow-seminarians, and the aging bishop of the Minnesota diocese of Ostergothenburg, they deal with Powers' unique milieu, the Roman Catholic Church in late 20th century America. It is a church where the articles of faith have been reduced to an excuse for an institutionalized Kiwanian hierarchy and are at the best the subject for sophomoric debate, where efficient administration and good PR have taken precedence over the nurture of souls and good housekeeping at the rectory is more important than the pastoral round….

To say that these stories are beautifully conceived and artfully executed is like saying that an elephant has big ears; on his chosen ground, Powers has no competitors worthy of the name, John Updike not excepted. It seems almost gratuitous to add that, in the service of his larger and intensely serious purpose, he is also marvelously funny. Anyone who fails to laugh aloud at the ridiculous revelation (in "Farewell" …) that is the closest the diocese of Ostergothenburg can come to a miracle must have a heart of stone. It is when one realizes why one is laughing that the lesson begins. (p. 34)

L. J. Davis, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.

J. F. Powers is at his best with his tales about Midwestern priests and bishops. They wander through the world of Rosary and Altar Guild raffles and parish Cub Scout meetings and wonder about their own spiritual lives. The way Powers has kept up with the times impressed me most in this collection. The territory is now post-Vatican II. (p. 191)

Several of the stories about laymen also have thoughts on spiritual life at their roots—Powers is a believer—but they simply aren't as effective…. [The] priest stories reaffirm that Powers is a wonderful colloquial raconteur in the noble tradition of Frank O'Connor and I. B. Singer. His clergy tell us something about the stuff of all our hearts. (p. 192)

Peter LaSalle, in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1977 by Carleton College), Volume XVI, 1976–77.