Friday 18 December 2009

Look How the Fish Live - J.F. Powers

Look How the Fish Live by J.F. Powers Image Books, Alfred A. Knopf Ltd. New York, NY, 1975. This third collection of J.F. Powers' short stories was published twenty-eight years after his first collection and nineteen years after his second. All of the stories in this collection were previously published in magazines and newspapers, between 1957 and 1975. Unlike his earlier two collections, all of these stories have been previously published elsewhere. Another unique feature of this collection is that six of the ten stories are written in pairs, meaning that the stories are about the same characters or people.

The stories that are paired are the first and last stories: Look How the Fish Live and Tinkers, both of which appear to be autobiographical(I can find allusions to this assumption but no definite evidence; as such it is just opinion.) Next, the second and seventh stories, Bill and Priestly Fellowship respectively, are about Joe. Both also appear as chapters in the book Wheat that Springeth Green. And finally Keystone and Farewell are both about a bishop in a rural diocese of Ostergothenburg in Minnesota.

Therefore this collection has six religious short stories, 2 secular short stories, and the two autobiographical stories that seem to be a little of each. They are not as overtly religious as most of his fiction that falls into that category, but it does make reference to God and faith so it falls in between. Thus we will now examine each story separately.

Look How the Fish Live
After reading this story combined with the last story in this collection, that is about the same family a few years later, the reader cannot but feel somewhat that it is autobiographical. Powers in his lifetime lived back and forth between the United States and Ireland. It appears that when money was good and he had an arts patron he moved the family to Ireland. When money became tight and he needed more income, he returned to the States and took up various teaching positions at different post secondary institutions.

In this story our protagonist, an unnamed parent, is preparing to bury an abandoned bird his children brought home. He is complaining to God about all the animals he has had to bury, and reflecting that the large wood lot has been sold to a university for a parking lot. While discussing the death and his weariness of nature, the neighbour misquotes Matthew 6:26 and we have the title 'Look How the fish Live.' This is a sad little story with overtures of environmentalism.

In this story Father Joe gets his first assistant pastor. It functions well as a stand-alone short story but also fits well into the whole story of the novel Wheat That Springeth Green. Joe the Pastor is uncertain how to prepare for a curate; he does not want to have the experience he did with his first parish, but he does not know how to do it. So he feels awkward and the story shows that awkwardness.

This story does not seem to fit with the rest of Powers' canon. It alludes to 2 couples that were swingers and soon grew to four couples that vacationed together and had wonderful experiences. It seems to be written as part of a collection about one of the people in the story but it is unclear which one.

This story is very typical of Powers' short stories. It is about a rural Diocese in Minnesota, and focuses around the politics of the Chancery, and amongst clergy in general. The Bishop, John Dullinger, is currently at odds with his Chancellor Monsignor Holstein. Dullinger picks Father Gau as his new driver and assistant. Over the progression of the story Father Gau replaces Holstein as rector of the cathedral and steers the Bishop into many activities he previously avoided - public speaking, involvement with the youth and laity, and more. Gau also leads the bishop into building a new cathedral, but Dullinger becomes dissatisfied with the building and with Gau in the process.

One of Them
This story is about a priest who is a convert, and his experiences at his first parish. It captures parish life from the view inside the rectory. Back in 1992, I lived in a small rectory in south eastern Ontario. This story could have been one of my personal experiences at that time. It is about a slightly weird thrifty rector, an eager young curate, or seminarian, and a housekeeper who tries to run the parish from the kitchen of the rectory.

This short story, written as a play in three acts, is full of humour and sarcasm. It tells about a lunar landing just seven years before it actually took place. Yet the whole thing is just an attempt by two young men to get permission to have the hands of the women they love. The story is far less serious than any of Powers' others and as such is a unique contribution from his pen.

Priestly Fellowship
This story continues some time after Bill, from earlier in this collection and in the novel Wheat that Springeth Green. In the novel there are 5 chapters separating the two short stories. In it Joe has an idealized vision of how priests should associate together and the types of conversations they should have. Unfortunately, because young Bill is of a different generation and Father Otto is with a religious order and not a parish priest, (even though he is in residence at the rectory and helping out with parish work), this story is a little sad and bittersweet, especially since it reminds us that often we do not live up to our expectations of ourselves. And Joe, as a member of the clergy, has even higher expectations for himself and those around him.

Continuing sometime after Keystone, Bishop Dullinger is about to retire and the conflict between him and his replacement Bishop Gau has only intensified. The story captures the politics that can exist in a diocese no matter how small, rural or traditional. It could have been written about most dioceses I have ever lived in and about clergy I know personally.

This piece is an example of Powers' satire at its best. Short, concise and extremely funny.

Returning to an autobiographical theme, this story continues after Look How the Fish Live. The family tight on money has been running a hotel. Then in the middle of the night they move out because the former landlord has returned home. Joseph Bottum in the magazine First Things, states about Powers: "Powers led an astonishingly uneventful life." And this story captures that feel, even if in reality it is not fact.

Steven Knight in his list of books to read states about J.F. Powers: "He is sometimes described as a writer's writer, meaning that he was an artist too good to gratify the most casual reader, but he was also a reader's writer, if we assume a reader who thinks of fiction as intelligent art rather than low entertainment." Furthermore Joseph Bottum

This collection of short stories has more focus and intention than the previous two collections. The overlapping stories in this volume, and the greater consistency in dealing primarily with religious matters and framing it in the context of autobiographical material gives it a cohesive feel. And that feel is the essence of Powers' writings and why those who encounter him, more often than not, become fans and continue to pursue his works again and again.

(First written for RS398 - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers.)

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy

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