Wednesday 16 December 2009

The Presence of Grace - J.F. Powers

The Presence of Grace by J.F. Powers Image Books, Victor Gollancz Ltd. London, England 1957 (First published in 1956). This second collection of J.F. Powers' short stories was published nearly a decade after his first collection. The nine short stories were previously published between 1949 and 1956 in a variety of magazines including The Partisan Review, The New Yorker, Tomorrow, Commonweal, and Accent. This collection of Powers' short stories is very different from his first collection, The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories, in that this collection is almost exclusively Catholic-themed stories. This collection also avoids some of the political nature of the first collection, with no stories about racism or Antisemitism. Of the nine stories all but one have Catholic themes, and most revolve around the lives of priests.

Powers creates unique stories in that his writing style is minimalist before it was even recognized as a style. His stories are events and dialogue driven. Seldom does he go into extensive descriptions of locations, places or surroundings. When he does, the reader realizes that it is critical to the story. An example of this is the description of the furniture and environment in the basement in the story The Losing Game. The young curate is trying to get a desk from the Rector. They are down in the locked basement, and there is more description in this segment of this story than the rest of the book. Because of this lack of description, what carries these stories and gives them such power, is Powers' exceptional creation of characters, and his use of dialogue, both external and internal, to individual characters.

In this collection, we are also introduced to the Clementines - a factious religious order that is the focus of Powers' first novel Morte d'Urban. In the story, the Devil Was a Joker, we encounter a traveling salesman who hocks the literature of the Clementines and supplements his income with a variety of religious paraphernalia. But there are a few of the stories that have that Clementine feel; the Clementines are a middle-rate religious order, nowhere near as glorious as the Jesuits, and not as pathetic as the Missionary Oblates.

Powers presents priests in two categories, those who are adept at their jobs, and truly care about people and those who seem to be in it just as a business. The interesting thing about these stories is that even though they were all written before Vatican Council II, they can all be read as if they were written today and about today's priests and laypeople. These stories are about life - life as part of a faith community, a community that has both strengths and weaknesses just like the members who make up that community. As such he continues to speak to readers a half century after it was first published.

This is a quirky story about an envelope left in a collection plate addressed to the Pope. It causes much consternation both in the parish and in the office of the diocese. It is an example of how people can always fear the worse, and their own apprehension makes the situation worse.

Death of a Favorite
This is the first of two stories told from the perspective of a cat. In this collection, combined with Defection of a Favorite, they tell the story of a rectory where the Pastor refers to the cat as his curate. Father Malt likes to make fun of Father Bruner, his real assistant, by claiming the cat is his assistant. The story is a little unusual from Powers, in being told in the first person and that person being a pet cat.

The Poor Thing
This is the story of an elderly woman, Teresa, whose pension just does not make ends meet. As such, she takes some work as a personal-aid worker to a woman in a wheel chair, Dolly. Both characters are to be pitied for their situations in life and their inability to deal with them appropriately. Both are Catholic and Dolly uses her faith as a weapon to make Teresa feel guilt and to do things she does not really want to do.

The Devil Was the Joker
This is a story about the Clementines. Or rather about a traveling salesman Mac, who represents them to dioceses and parishes around the country, trying to sell their booklets and magazines. But it is also the story of Myles, a failed seminarian who is trying to find a way to have a Vocation. Mac meets Myles while Mac is in the hospital and Myles is working as an orderly. Myles is enlisted to assist in this work, with the lure of it being a vocation and could maybe help him get into the fold of the Clementines. However Myles soon learns Macs' religious rhetoric is just a game and he will sell anything, including playing cards with angels and devils on them.

A Losing Game
This and the final story are about a parish where Father Fabre is a curate and there is an unnamed pastor. In this instalment the curate gleans insight into the pastor's character and ambition, all the while trying to get a desk out of the pastor for his typewriter in his room. In the process, he is shot while the pastor is trying to kill rats in the basement. The story is a little humorous but really does not feel completed until we read the final story, The Presence of Grace where the story of these two continues at some point later in time.

Defection of a Favorite
In this story Father Malt has been injured and is in hospital for most of the story. During that time, Father Bruner goes through a transformation from being a little self-centered and obtuse to really living and working for the ministry into which he was apparently called. The animosity and antagonism between Bruner and the cat also end, and they become friends and the cat attempts to assist Bruner when the Bishop visits.

The Bishop is on the beginning of a pilgrimage journey to Rome, when an old classmate introduces him to Father Early just before the departure from Saint Paul, Minnesota. During the train ride to Chicago the Bishop is initially put off by the aggressive and outgoing priest. However, he soon realizes that the priest is really just zealous for God and does all he tries to do, however misguided, because of that zeal.

Blue Island
This is the only secular story in this collection. It is an odd story about a housewife, who is a newlywed and moves to her husband's home town, Blue Island. Her husband is quirky and even though he saved the family business he does not really fit in. Like many of Powers' stories, this one is about someone who is a bit of an underachiever and this causes him to put undue pressure on his wife.

The Presence of Grace
In this story young Father Fabre makes a mistake. He decides to visit a parishioner without clearing it with the pastor. In doing so he opens a large can of worms. Once he realizes his mistake, he waits for the pastor's return in fear and trepidation. However the pastor calms him and meets with the Women's League and deflects them as well. All this time Fabre had thought the pastor was holding him back and not very effectively. In this instalment he realizes the wisdom in the pastor's long silences and idiosyncratic ways.

(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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