The Stories of J.F. Powers

One of those authors I have been meaning to get around to read is J.F. Powers. I first heard him recommended by Amy Welborn and later found that both Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy praised his works. As a writer he was not very prolific writer with only two novels along with collections of short stories. It is interesting that his first writing started as an experiment during a spiritual retreat.

I had previously read his novel Morte d’Urban which I certainly enjoyed and just finished The Stories of J.F. Powers which I think is all of his short stories in one volume weighing in at 592 pages.  Now I am not the greatest short story fan and I think it is because a short story requires more from you in the main.  The author is much more constrained in plot and character development and often there is a more subtle touch.

The majority of his stories had specifically Catholic settings often involving priests and sometimes bishops.  These are not overly pious stories and you get the feeling of real characters with human struggles.  He had studied midwestern Catholic priests and this is the main setting for his stories. Often we have the tensions between a pastor and his curate.  Many of the situations are quite funny and the interactions of the characters makes for much of the enjoyment of these stories. While there is humor involved these stories have a depth that goes beyond just playing it for laughs.  Despite my struggles with short stories I found I was much more drawn into these stories.

Some of the stories were connected such as the three stories involving Father Burner which start in “Prince of Darkness”.  I especially liked these stories as Father Burner was always planning on becoming a pastor and wondering why he was instead just transferred from parish to parish as an assistant. Another connected story involves a bishop and his struggles with Monsignors and then period of time after he retires and is called in concerning the case of a women receiving messages from Mary.  Also interesting is some of his stories involving race relations and race riots of the time. The story “The Trouble”  written in 1947 involving a black family during one riot was especially good as it explores racism and various attitudes.

While not being very prolific his work spans a fairly long period of time as he died in 1999.  While his novels had underlying theological and spiritual themes they were rather subtle, still you can see things in his priest/bishop related stories that show some of the turmoil of the sixties.  One of the more overt stories on his turmoil was  “Priestly fellowship” which contains a priest who has lost his faith.  The conversations in this are especially good. I especially loved this part, though there were several others I highlighted.

“People living normal lives can’t identify with Our Lord,” Potter said. “Or with us —because of the celibacy barrier.”

“That so?” said Joe. “And where you don’t have that barrier? I mean how well do we identify with Our Lord?”

I am very glad I was made aware of J.F. Powers and while some other American Catholic writers deservedly get a lot of attention, I think he should certainly get more attention.

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