J. F. Powers Short Fiction Analysis
The most frequently reprinted of J. F. Powers’s 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 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 Devil Was the Joker”
“The Devil Was 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 best-known 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.
In “The Forks,” a young curate, Father Eudex, assistant to a Monsignor in a middle-class parish, is presented with a...
(The entire section is 1700 words.)