Tuesday 15 December 2009

The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories - J.F. Powers

Prince of Darkness & Other Stories
by J.F. Powers
Image Books,
Doubleday Company Inc.
Garden City, New York 1958 (First published in 1947).

This collection of short stories was first published in 1947 but most of the stories were published earlier, between 1943 and 1947 in various magazines and newspapers. Power's writing had a devout following from early on. His stories have been published and republished not only in this collection but in many anthologies and collections - often in collections of Catholic fiction or collections of American fiction. Also, his works often end up in English literature courses.

He has two distinct types of stories, religious and cultural. His religious stories focus around the Catholic faith, the day in and day out life of clergy and laity. This first of his published collections is a mix of those archetypes. There are five secular stories and six religious stories, and overlapping both are five stories with racism, either against people of color, or Jewish heritage or Germans (Americans of German dissent). Powers does an amazing job of capturing a snapshot of American culture at a very specific time.

Reading these stories transports one back in time, to a less politically correct time, a time rife with social unrest and a world responding to the Second World War. As a modern reader looking back, these pieces are so well written that they draw the reader in and he becomes a witness to the events. Personally, being a post Vatican Council II baby, my experience of the Roman Catholic Church was very different from Powers, yet he captures something about the spirit of Catholicism, with its good its bad and its ugly, in such a way that his religious stories still speak to the minds and hearts of readers more than a half century later. Now a brief look at each of the specific stories.

The Lord's Day: This is a story about a power struggle at a Catholic parish and parochial school between the Nuns and the Rector of the Parish. In a way it is the story of all politics in a religious organization. It is a sad story with a sad ending.

The Trouble: Based around the race riots in the U.S., this story captures the feel and terror of a time when civil unrest left people dead and constantly under a threat of danger. It is also the story of faith - a woman's faith that the priest will come when her daughter is injured no matter what is happening, and her faith to protect a white man being chased by a black mob even though her daughter lies unconscious after being beaten by a white mob. This story evokes raw emotion and reminds us of a less glamorous period in our recent past.

Lions, Harts, Leaping Does: This is the story of an elderly brother living and working in a monastery. The story takes place mostly in the protagonist's mind, as he struggles with his own ac
tions and motives and those of people around him. It is Didymus coming to an ontological self-understanding during illness and not too long before his death. He states: "With the same wonderful clarity, he saw what he had made of his life. He saw himself tied down, caged, stunted in his apostolate, seeking crumbs, the little pleasure, neglecting the source, always knowing death changes nothing only immortalizes .. and still ever lukewarm." (p. 45) Such open, honest transparency with self is rare even in fiction.

Jamesie: This is the story of a young boy who has faith, not in God but in his hero, a baseball pitcher. It starts during a specific baseball game where the pitcher is believed to have thrown the game. The boy's faith is crushed and he is left wondering, as we so often do after we have been let down by those in whom we believe.

He Don't Plant Cotton: Powers does an amazing job in this piece describing music and the playing of music. It focuses around three black musicians playing in a small club. When some white businessmen who are drunk start hassling them, they stand up for themselves and thus lose their jobs. It is a story of racism, but also human dignity.

The Forks: Is the story of conflict within the church, of differing opinions and interpretations of what it means to be Christ's ambassadors. For the older established priest, it is about status, and people's opinions; for the young curate it is about serving, helping and loving. It also highlights the stru
ggle within the church for those who take stands on current issues, in this case social justice and those who support the old order or tradition. When I was a candidate discerning a vocation to the Catholic priesthood, the conversations in this story could have taken place between priests, seminarians and students like me, around the table or on road trips in the car. Even though this story is dated by the vehicles in it, it could just as easily have been an experience of a friend of mine. It even has overtures of anti-Semitism.

Renner: This story was harder to follow and though I grasp some of the anti-German sentiment in it, I do not grasp the real meaning of the story. I know I am missing something from this story of an evening spent in a roadhouse and the various groups interacting with each other over the evening.

The Valiant Woman: This story is about a priest who has allowed himself to be overrun by his maid. She is really the one running his life and the parish. Some joke that he is like an old married man nagged until giving in. In part that is true, and he realizes it but does not know how to change the situation without hurting her, and she has served him and the church for many years. It captures the struggle that can take place between what should
happen and what does happen; about the struggle to find balance between following the letter of the law and extending mercy, even if at the cost of self.

The Eye: This story has strong, powerful, raw emotion in the form of racism. It focuses around a group of white men responding to rumors of a white woman being raped and attacked by a black man. The story is visceral in how it evokes anger over wrongs done, and wrongs done in response to perceived injustice.

The Old Bird, A Love Story: Written about an old couple during the great depression, Charlie wants to work but he is older than most looking for work and slower when he starts. It is a sad story of failures.

Prince o
f Darkness: This is a story about mediocrity - about a priest, the only one from his seminary class without his own parish. It is about his desire for a parish, even a rural one if he must. He is almost past the point of caring or even of hoping, yet when he is summoned to the Cathedral he cannot but get his hopes up.

In this collection Powers addresses issues of his time, and captures experiences of ordinary people living their day-to-day lives. His stories have the power to evoke emotions and sentiments and a response from readers. His characters are real and I could name one or two clergy I've known in my life that are almost the men he creates in his story. Maybe that is what has contributed to Powers' lasting impact - his characters are real, and a reader cannot help but think of people they know, and see them or even themselves, in his stories. These are some of his earliest published works that show his writing at the beginning of his career, and are thus excellent starting points for a study of his collective fictional works.

(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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