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Divine Inspiration

J.F. Powers didn't just write about priests--he also made them thoroughly human.

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An artist is his work. The man dies, the work lives, and we judge his achievement by that.

If J.F. Powers had written only Morte D'Urban, the 1963 National Book Award winner, we would still call his life a success. He did write more, another novel over 20 years in the making and several collections of short stories that are widely regarded as the finest of our time. He was a slow worker, a meticulous craftsman whose list of book titles would hardly darken a page.

But he was as good as you can get and still earn the title "overlooked" (if anyone who has won praise from Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Frank O'Connor, V.S. Pritchett, Sean O'Faolain--let me stop the list here--can be said to be overlooked).

Of course, Powers wrote about priests. Not exclusively, but one can readily say that stories about priests constitute the heart of his work. And his priests do not engage in the kind of behavior that would land them on the ten o'clock news. They go about their business. For better or worse, they do their jobs. Not one runs off with a woman, or molests an altar boy, or sells his soul to the devil, or has to be taken away by the powers that be.

And before we go one step further, no, J. F. Powers did not write that one about patent leather shoes. That was John R. Powers, another case altogether.

Those of us who treasure our long-out-of-print copies of J.F. Powers's work now celebrate and bless the publishers of the New York Review of Books, who in the year since his death have brought out three handsome paperbound volumes that represent the essential Powers. Two are his novels, Morte D'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green. The third, The Stories of J.F. Powers, consists of his previous short story collections and then some.

It's been almost 40 years since I first read Morte D'Urban. This was a time in the 1960s when my own life had come down to a single business address on Diversey Avenue, a mom-and-pop variety store I called Pekin's Confectionary. Why confectionary, I no longer know, but that was what I instructed the workmen to paint above the red-and-white Coca Cola sign that hung over the store entrance. Amid the amazing jumble of merchandise I offered the residents of Logan Square was a revolving metal rack of paperback books. Morte D'Urban entered my life on that rack, arriving on the Charles A. Levy truck in a slim paperback edition that sold for 60 cents.

I met a lot of interesting authors in those days--Joseph Heller, Curzio Malaparte, Jerzy Kosinski, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence. I took the whole gang with me when I began teaching writing at Columbia College. As part of our fiction workshops, my colleagues and I often read aloud the work of established authors and always sought fresh, exciting voices. Jerzy Kosinski served me well, perhaps too well. Who could forget that scene in The Painted Bird where the jealous miller spooned out the ploughboy's eyes and stomped them into jelly?

After that, I suspect Powers and his priests may have been a bit tame for my students, many of whom were refugees from parochial schools and understandably suspicious of any literary character who had taken the holy orders. Nor did I have much luck selling his short stories at department meetings where friends looked at me oddly when I suggested they read about priests. "But look," I insisted, "you don't have to be Catholic to read Powers. You don't have to even believe in God!"

I didn't see Powers as a religious writer in those days. I saw him as something close to my heart, a man who wrote about men at work. His priests were men who got up each morning and did their jobs, usually with dignity, even when the world seemed to conspire against them. Some were ambitious, some were frustrated, all were likable, even the rascals, even the saints.

And yet Powers is a religious writer. No sermons, no, no, no. Not once do any of his stories tell you, the reader, how to live. Even so, it is difficult to imagine any of them being written by a man whose faith was in the slightest bit casual. "I would not fly blind," he once said, "and write without regard to a body of philosophy."

But why of priests? Because, I suspect, they served his purposes so well, and there was no question that he knew them. He attended a Franciscan high school in Quincy, Illinois. Some of his best friends became priests. His wife's brother was a priest. Some of his first published work appeared in the Catholic Worker, a newspaper I vaguely remember from childhood as being a good deal more interesting than the Sunday Visitor. He was for many years associated with the College of Saint Benedict (for women) and Saint John's University (for men) in Collegeville, Minnesota. He knew and corresponded with many well-known Catholic authors and critics. He was not your ordinary Catholic layman.

During his Chicago years, in the late 30s and early 40s, J.F. Powers took classes on and off at Wright Junior College and Northwestern University, usually at night, always part-time, never with enough money to complete his degree. He struggled to find work, clerking at Marshall Field's and Brentano's, selling insurance, chauffeuring, editing documents for the Chicago Historical Records Survey, writing for the Catholic Worker, and spending much of his spare time in the reading room of the Chicago Public Library. It was here in Chicago that he refused induction into the army, and here that he was sentenced to Sandstone federal prison in Minnesota after being denied conscientious objector status, a chapter in his life he preferred to keep private for as long as his parents lived.

Forty years later, in Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers gives Father Joe Hackett the last word on this subject: "The Church's problem...is not the odd conscientious objector, or even the conscientious objector to war but the mass of conscientious and not so conscientious, and unconscientious acceptors of war--and herself."

Powers had already produced several acclaimed collections of short stories when chapters of Morte D'Urban began appearing in the New Yorker. The book, published by Doubleday, was received with honors--the NBA--and there was even talk of a movie. Powers didn't like the idea--possibly he had seen Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby playing priests once too often.

One can almost forgive Popular Library for trying to sell its paperback edition as something just a bit racier than it was, citing on its cover a review that promised "a near seduction scene that, without a wayward word, is more sensual than all the graffiti of Henry Miller." In those days people were always comparing other writers to Henry Miller.

In fact, Morte D'Urban, as its title suggests, is patterned after Le Morte d'Arthur, and is rich in medieval motifs. The original edition, and even my 60-cent paperback, posted a coat of arms for Urban. Anyone hoping to drool over that near seduction scene would have been sadly disappointed.

The story begins in Chicago when Father Urban, a priest who likes a good cigar and knows what to order at the Pump Room (champagne and shish kebab served on a flaming sword), is given "the green banana" by the father provincial of his order, a man whose passion is bees. To cut him down to size, the Clementines--in Urban's view, they labor "under the curse of mediocrity and had done so almost from the beginning"--exile him, their finest public speaker and fund-raiser, to the "newest white elephant of the order," a retreat home in Minnesota named Duesterhaus (translates as "House of Gloom"). There he will answer to Father Wilfrid, a man of uncertain talents.

At Duesterhaus paint peels and plaster crumbles, squirrels run in and out of the eaves, mice (or perhaps larger rodents) go bowling between the walls, rooms stand unheated (wear long underwear, Father Wilfrid advises), and no outside help can ever be hired to take up repairs. As the fathers prepare to paint the crumbling walls, Wilf suggests, indeed insists, that Urban cover his head lest the arsenic in "some of this old paint" cause him to lose his hair. "What about breathing it?" Urban asks. "You're pretty well protected by the hair in your nose," says Wilf, who then observes that nose hairs grow down, thus protecting them from the fumes.

When Wilf ships him off to sub for a vacationing pastor, Urban gets to show his stuff, initiating a survey to find out how the other man's parishioners might feel about a new church. (The older folks--fortunately there aren't too many--keep asking, "Wouldn't a new church cost too much?") Door-to-door he goes. "A dog nipped him, a hamster wet on him, a piece of fruitcake played hell with one of his gold inlays, and always he had to watch where he sat down." He organizes card parties for the seniors and square dances for the young marrieds, conducts a mission, increases attendance at daily mass by 159 percent, and even sponsors a rock 'n' roll concert for the teens. All for naught. After the vacationing pastor drops dead of a heart attack while golfing in the Bahamas, Urban is not offered the position. He isn't even considered.

Back at Duesterhaus, he sets out to right the retreat house. With the backing of Billy Cosgrove, a Chicago-based highflier who would as soon buy a car as rent one, as soon buy a piano as do without an evening of revelry, as soon drown a deer with his bare hands as be skunked on a fishing trip, he turns the grounds around the retreat into a nine-hole golf course with a shrine of Our Lady "below the number five green."

But what of Father Urban's immortal soul? Is he not a member of an order founded by Saint Clement, who preached that "pockets, not money, are the root of all evil"? Is all this worldliness in keeping with the intent of his vows?

The story darkens, and Urban, dueling the bishop's champion (at golf), is felled--I won't tell you how. Convalescing, he is tested three times, by wealth, by power, and by the flesh. He rejects all. A changed man, he imagines himself as he might have been had he never entered the priesthood--"in some kind of business you could breathe in, perhaps heavy machinery, much of it going overseas, meeting fellows like Haile Selassie and Farouk's father, whatever his name was, and operating out of a spacious office on Michigan Avenue, high up, with a view of the lake, walnut paneling, Persian carpets, furnished with gifts from potentates and dictators of the better sort, a tree at Christmas, efficient rosy-cheeked girls in white-collared dark dresses, Irish girls hired for the purity of their vocables, and himself hardly ever there."

Even as he muses, Chicago changes before our eyes. "The most beautiful sound I know is the sounds of whistles on Michigan Avenue at dusk, especially in the fall. I like to sit in Grant Park and listen to the cops calling to each other like nightingales. You know the Chicago whistle? Wheeeeeeeeeee-uhhhhhhh-wheeeeeuhhhh. I'd say it's a musical instrument, related to the clarinet, piccolo, and oboe, and also related to the old-time train whistle..."

Powers wrote much of this book in a bare rented office above a shoe store in Saint Paul, walking to work six days a week with a sandwich in his pocket, seldom finishing more than a page a day. Writing, he said, was a "dirty sweaty job" that he might not have done if he'd had enough income otherwise.

Whether he really meant this, we shall never know, but work is a theme that gives his writing extra meaning and substance: his priests work with their hands and their minds and their souls. They cannot be saints because they are required to be men, real men, whose lives are measured by work. Only when Father Urban, man of the world, has his "conversion," and retreats from the world of commerce and competition into the peace and sanctity of his vows, does the story come to a happy ending--but this ending is as wistful and haunting as any old-time train whistle you might want to imagine outside your bedroom window on some dark night long, long ago.

If we can thank The New York Review of Books for Urban, we can thank them doubly for bringing back the short stories. Think of all the literary movements we've gone through since the 50s--metafiction, fabulation, neogothic, minimalism, magic realism. I have a collection in my library called Anti-Story, and I remember a particular issue of a local literary magazine I will not name that came with a cover that promised, in blurry letters, "an end to clarity." None of that stuff for Powers. His stories are models of clarity and craft. To summarize them would be to spoil the fun. Better that you meet Father Burner for yourself, sowing discord, dropping burned matches into the holy water font, forcing the rectory cat to, ugh, eat mice! I will leave it for you to find Mrs. Stoner, the housekeeper who, not being a relative, did not quite meet the letter of the law--clerics are allowed to reside only with women about whom there can be no suspicion. But "alas, how she fulfilled the spirit!" And then McMaster, not a cleric but a relentless salesman of "ecclesiastic" gimcrackery whose bag of tricks included automatic bingo cards with simulated corn counters, a marvelous handheld rosary counter "similar to an umpire's ball and strike indicator," and decks of playing cards with kings, queens, and knaves replaced by saints and the devil as the joker.

And Fritz the cat, who speaks for himself.

You have to give Powers a lot of credit here. It's so darn difficult to get anyone to read your cat stories, let alone publish your stories with cat narrators. "That black devil," as Father Burner calls him, wears a white clerical collar in his fur, sees no reason to harm a mouse ("My record with them had been good, and they in turn played fair with me"), and with a very straight face informs us he has been celibate since he came to live at the rectory but remains "as manly as the next one." Fritz keeps track of the comings and goings of the fathers, takes note of who drank what and how much, of what was said behind the archbishop's back, of what was served for dinner, of what magazines the ambitious curate curls up with while the pastor is ill (Church Property Administration); he even survives a near exorcism and death beneath the car of a visiting priest. He has, after all, nine lives.

Flannery O'Connor did not think very much of Fritz and advised Powers to have some Minneapolis motorist "run over that cat permanently, in the interests of literature." Luckily cats are not so easily disposed of. Thirty-three years later, the first of the Fritz stories, "The Death of a Favorite," shows up again in John Updike's anthology The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Any number of Powers's short stories would qualify for such an honor. Back in my Columbia years, it seemed as if I was always finding them in one or another of those "best of" anthologies publishers hoped teachers would use as texts for writing classes. In that sense, at least, Powers has never been entirely out of print, and perhaps never will be.

During the 1980s I was a police officer driving a squad car for the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and my most frequently thumbed text was Chapter 38 of the Illinois Criminal Code. You might say I got away from the literary life a bit. I couldn't help but think every now and then about Father Urban and all those other priests. It did occur to me that in writing about priests, Powers might very well have been writing about cops. The way we all related to each other. The petty power plays. The rivalries, the alliances, the competition for equipment, friendship, and favors.

Of course, when I was teaching I saw Powers in terms of academic life, and when I was running my store I compared the difficulties his priests faced with my own struggle to keep a business alive. Maybe that's the way we all view stories, looking for the things that reflect our own lives. But Powers's priests are not cops or businessmen or civil servants or academics. There is something in every profession that sets it apart from all others, priests above all, and some of the attraction of what we are given here is the opportunity to safely enter a world some of us once saw as closed and mysterious and even tinted with danger. (How forbidding the parish rectory looked to me when I was a child! In there, we whispered. Father Gross lives in there!)

Powers's final book, Wheat That Springeth Green, takes us where the others do not quite go. In little more than 300 pages he covers the entire life of a Catholic priest in Minnesota--from childhood to the seminary to curate to parish priest to the moment when he concludes his regular working life. This time we do not just see the priest; we see the entire man.

In his opening chapters, Powers makes it clear that this priest, Joe Hackett, is a real man in the way that Fritz the cat claimed his masculinity. Before recognizing his vocation, young Joe has sex with not one but two girls (at the end of the month he receives an itemized bill for their services), and despite his investment in a gross of condoms he ends up with a dose of the clap. The actual sex scene is short, but graphic enough to make Henry Miller sit up and take notice. After taking the advice of a trusted priest, Joe makes his confession, apparently in another parish.

"'Madre di Dio! You a married man?' 'No Father.' 'You work--got job?' 'No Father.' 'What you do?' 'Nothing, Father.' 'You student?' 'Yes, Father.' 'How old you?' 'Fifteen, Father.' 'Madre di Dio!'"

Penance is one rosary a day, and--"You run mile morning, mile night. Make good act of contrition. God bless."

In the next chapter we see Joe established at the seminary, several years after putting this incident to rest.

When asked about Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers, who saw himself primarily as a short story writer, once said, "I'm really not a novelist." He was, without a doubt, overly critical of his own writing, but the structure of this book does resemble a cycle of related stories: the story of Joe Hackett the young man coming of age; the story of Joe Hackett the overzealous seminarian; the story of Joe Hackett the newly ordained priest resisting the mercenary ways of the old church; the story of Joe Hackett the young curate who must pick up the slack for a saintly pastor who would rather pray than work; the story of Joe Hackett the hard-drinking pastor of his own parish; the story of Joe Hackett and his own young curate; the story of Joe Hackett and the Vietnam war resister; and finally the redemption of Joe Hackett.

All these stories do add up to a novel, a work that is both serious and filled with joy. It is funny to see Father Joe set out to buy a new bed for his curate, and even funnier when he decides to take it for himself. It's funny when he is unable to learn the last name of a new man, and even funnier when he tries to learn it without directly asking. It is certainly funny when Joe foils a holdup at the liquor store (where he buys far, far too much liquor), and even funnier when he sees himself praised as a hero on the nightly news. By all rights, we shouldn't like this sometimes bitter, sometimes cynical, sometimes righteous man. But the more Joe acts like one of us the more we do like him and the more we hope things will go well for him in the end. There are painful scenes before we get there, some almost too painful to endure, as when a malicious informant names Joe as a suspect in a venereal disease case and the man from the board of health arrives to inform him he has 48 hours "to provide the board with proof to the contrary." Which he does. I told you, none of Powers's priests engage in that kind of behavior. Well, there is one minor character who does, but he does it off camera.

And yet, in her introduction to the new edition of Wheat That Springeth Green, Katherine Powers tells us her father wrote this book over an "increasingly dark time" in his life. When he finally finished, after countless revisions, stops, and starts, he was over 70, had seen himself grow old, had seen his church change in ways he did not like at all, had seen the world change into something new and not entirely palatable. These autumnal excursions are dangerous journeys for older writers who must, lest they sink into despair and cynicism, somehow nourish every last spark of youth and hope they have. How did he do it?

When I was in parochial school the nuns, always alert for a metaphor, spoke of the problems presented by a priest's many-buttoned cassock. If you started a job wrong, they said (and no one doubted they meant morally wrong), if you put the first button in the wrong hole, when you reached the top you would have to go back and start all over again.

J.F. Powers did not make that mistake. From the very first stories he wrote to this final glowing novel, never mind how long it took, he buttoned up everything right.

Wheat That Springeth Green, like Morte D'Urban, was highly acclaimed. Nominated for a National Book Award. And allowed to go out of print.

Now it's back. Now they're all back, but not that easy to find. I visited Barnes & Noble in Skokie. Not in stock. "Can I order it for you?" I tried B. Dalton's in the Loop. Not in stock. "Can I order it for you?" Tried Marshall Field's, the same store where Powers bought the copy of Ulysses he carried for the rest of his life. Out of stock. "We did have it for a while."

Happily, there is always Amazon and the other bookseller dot-coms. If any of my old students are reading this, hear me now, you can order today. Now that you have had 30 years out there in "the real world" you might be ready.

When Jim Powers died (his friends called him Jim and I shall do it once on their behalf), he was living alone in a rented house that Katherine Powers has described as dilapidated and too too quiet. He was living as he wanted to live, near the graves of his wife and a daughter, visiting them daily, keeping to himself, reading, still interested in writing though no longer doing it. He just fell down, Katherine says. In the midst of life, life stopped.

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.

Morte D'Urban, by J.F. Powers, New York Review Books, $12.95 (paper).

Wheat That Springeth Green, by J.F. Powers, New York Review Books, $12.95 (paper).

The Stories of J.F. Powers, by J.F. Powers, New York Review Books, $14.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peat Shaulis.

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