Monday, January 21, 2013

J.F. Powers, Tale Teller

First, my thanks to those who've bought the Kindle app versions of my stories from Asimov's Science Fiction, the bundled "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and "Clockworks" and the 99-cent single, "Unearthed." I'm glad to get the stories out to those who missed them the first time around; it's nice, too, to see the (unexpected) surge in purchases for the two older stories. I'd like to hear from readers, so send me a note if you found something you appreciated in the tales. Selling them directly in this way, rather than second-hand, through Asimov's, I feel a greater sense of responsibility toward the "consumers" and hope they feel the expenditure was worth it. If you liked the work, consider providing some comment (or just a thumbs-up) at Amazon; you might even provide a link via Facebook, if you feel so moved. 

So.

Between the draft-with-gaps of two days ago (on my newest short story, "Vox ex Machina") and the complete-if-ragged draft of last night, I felt so put off by the story's opening, I had to read a writer whose style would set me right—not someone with an overwhelming voice that might affect my own, but someone whose constancy in prose reminds you how the basic architecture works. Thus, to J.F. Powers ("The Forks," The Stories of J.F. Powers).

I first came upon Powers in college. It's possible (at a distance of 30 years, the recollection is a muddled palimpsest of images) that my mistaking him for John R. Powers, the Catholic humor writer (Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?) who became popular in the '70s led to my initial exposure. I think some mention of Powers's novel Morte D'Urban, possibly in Commonweal, the Catholic journal, led me to him. Flannery O'Connor mentions him in her letters. Whatever the originating source, I believe I ended up taking one of his short story collections from the college library as well as Morte D'Urban, which won the National Book Award. Later, I'd read Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers's final work, which I gave as a gift to my pastor.

For someone raised Protestant, Powers presents difficulties: many of his stories concern the mundane happenings in the lives of Catholic priests in their rectories. Think of them as Jane Austen–style tales meant to illuminate the complexities of navigating the social complexities of celibate male life. Catholics can easily picture the setting and the ways priests of a certain era dealt with them and each other; for non-Catholics, much of the cultural and even spiritual subtext is absent. The goal for the characters, rather than marriage, is some firmer grasp or more clear understanding of the status quo. They inhabit a world they think of as unchanging, though really it's a brief period in American Catholic culture. As such, the stories now present the same problem to the current generation of Catholics as they would to non-Catholics: the particularities of the rectory-bound life is, while not completely passed, much altered and of little relevance to Catholic life and thinking.

Ah, but the stories. Even if you don't catch every interpersonal nuance or non-surviving cultural reference, you should be taken in by the strength of the prose in service to detailing how characters see (or fail to see) themselves. It's been too long since I've read Powers, so a generalization based on rereading once story is dangerous. Nevertheless: Where most short stories deal with some sort of movement, by the protagonist, toward a recognition, Powers relies on the recognition being experience by the reader rather than a character. The stories are ways to peel back layers of personality, using moments of gracelessness (rather than grace) to get at something fundamental about a character. The stories are not Catholic in a religious sense, but only in a cultural sense. Secular actions move stories along and are, in the end, all the characters have to show us as we stand in judgment. 

"The Forks" is a good example of this style. A younger priest finds himself under the thumb of the monsignor with whom he shares the rectory. The monsignor is a man of thwarted ambition, a man of judgment and habit who knows how things are to be done. The young priest must decide how far he can push against the older man's proscriptions—and that's about the length and breadth and depth of the tale. The tone of the story is refracted through the younger priest's eyes; it's especially sharp when we're given his back-handed praise of the monsignor:

"Father Eudex could imagine just what kind of bishop Monsignor would be. His reign would be a wise one, excessively so. His mind was made up on everything, excessively so. . . . For him, the dark forest of decisions would not exist; for him, thanks to hours spent in prayer and meditation, the forest would vanish as dry grass before fire, his fire."

The story is a small delight built on an accumulation of small delights. And the confidence of Powers's prose put me in the right place to finish my own story's draft. One or (more likely) two more go-rounds on "Vox ex Machina," then I'll send it to some writer friends for a look-see.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi William,

just put a review on amazon. Great stuff. I particularly like Clockworks.

William Preston said...

Howdy! I just read your review. Thanks much for taking the time to post it. I'm glad you've enjoyed these tales, and I hope you like the ones to come.

serge-lj said...

Got the stories for my Nook. I already had them, but, while information may want to be free, grocery doesn't.

William Preston said...

You mean Powers's stories?