The Voice of Twentieth-Century Catholicism

Since the death of J. F. Powers in 1999, admiring reviewers (all of his reviewers have been admiring) have mourned not only his death, but the general obscurity of his novels and stories. Although his first novel, Morte D’Urban, won the 1963 National Book Award — over the more familiar names of John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter, and Vladimir Nabokov — and his work was praised by such major figures as Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor (more on her later), he is not very well known, even among Catholics whose Church and priests he wrote about with such skill, insight, heart, and humor.

Joseph Bottum attributes this oversight to the fact that the Catholicism of Powers’s stories was so distinctly of the 20th century. “He really was the finest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century,” Bottum declares, before adding an epitaph: “And that century is over.” Perhaps. But I hope the strength of Powers’s writing helps his stories transcend a single period of the Catholic Church in America.

Rather than describe and recommend all of his stories and both of his novels, I’d like to consider three short stories that are particularly moving and fascinating: “Prince of Darkness,” “Death of a Favorite,” and “Defection of a Favorite.” All of these concern Father Ernest Burner, a frustrated and spiritually lazy diocesan priest in Minnesota. While he is a difficult character to like, the stories present very different visions of the priest, culminating in a surprisingly hopeful, though ambiguous, ending. Meanwhile, the purity of Powers’s prose, his wonderful turns of phrase and observations, make the stories a joy to read.

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“Prince of Darkness,” the title story of Powers’s 1947 collection of short fiction, follows the corpulent cleric over the course of a single day, during which he is tempted by a usurious insurance salesman (many of Powers’s stories and novels explore the peculiar problems of Church-related finances); preens before younger priests; scandalizes a waitress with his prodigious lunch; visits a sick friend, whom he later denies knowing; and constantly worries about his career, his strengths, and (especially) his shortcomings as a priest.

Through all of this, Burner comes across not as an evil person, but as a slothful and lax priest, a spiritually unserious and generally disagreeable man who “operate[s] on the principle of discord at any cost.” He likes to imagine himself dying as a martyr, but his fondness for material possessions and comfort make it difficult to imagine that he’s capable of such an immense sacrifice.

His superficial priorities resonate in his simplest actions: “[H]e glanced at his watch, but neglected to notice the time. The new gold strap got his eye. The watch itself, a priceless pyx, held the hour (time is money) sacred, like a host. He had chosen it for an ordination gift rather than the usual chalice. It took the kind of courage he had to go against the grain there.” This very funny passage captures the subtlety that distinguishes Powers’s stories. He resists explicitly stating what Burner’s decision means for his vocation, trusting both the well-chosen detail to illustrate the character’s flaws, and the reader to understand as much.

Powers’s insights into his character are fascinating and quite close, sometimes dipping into stream of consciousness. One particularly powerful meditation digresses from the main narrative for four pages, but is never dull or distracting because of writing like this:

Now he began to brood upon his failure as a priest. . . . He wanted to know one thing: when would he get a parish? When would he make the great metamorphosis from assistant to pastor, from mouse to rat, as the saying went? He was forty-three, four times transferred, seventeen years an ordained priest, a curate yet and only. He was the only one of his class without a parish.

This priestly ambition is at the heart of Burner’s trilogy. Frustrated with his station, the character yearns for a more important role, even if he underachieves in his lesser job. This particular story culminates in more professional disappointment for Burner when the archbishop gives him yet another assignment as an assistant; and though it’s clear that the priest doesn’t deserve much more, it’s difficult not pity him.

While the third-person subjective point of view in “Prince of Darkness” brings the reader very close to Burner’s consciousness, “Death of a Favorite” and “Defection of a Favorite” (both from the 1956 collection The Presence of Grace) take a different approach: Their narrator is a cat named Fritz. This did not impress O’Connor, who in an otherwise favorable review announced her hope “that this animal will prove to have only one life left and that some Minneapolis motorist, wishing to serve literature, will dispatch him as soon as possible.” (She liked this line so much that she used a version in a letter to Powers himself: “I would like you to know that I admire your stories better than any others I know of even in spite of the cat who, if my prayers have been attended to, has already been run down.”)

Obviously, Fritz is not nearly as interesting a character as Burner, but the rivalry between the cat and the priest plays nicely into Burner’s sense of himself as a mouse, quoted above. “Death of a Favorite” depicts the absurdity of parish power grabs; as Fritz observes, “It is naked power that counts in most any rectory.” Burner is now an assistant to Father Malt, a frail and nearly deaf old priest who devotes more attention to Fritz than he does to maintaining the parish. Jealous of the cat (how’s that for emotional maturity?), Burner develops a very funny, though probably sacrilegious, plan to convince Malt that the cat is possessed. Once again, though, Burner’s hopes are frustrated, this time by Fritz’s feline powers of resurrection. All this absurdity is conveyed in (and elevated by) Powers’s characteristically pristine prose.

Fritz and Burner both return in “Defection of a Favorite,” but the tone here is much more serious. With Father Malt in the hospital for an extended stay, Burner finally realizes his ambition of running a parish. Fritz, meanwhile, understands that he must treat the new man in charge with respect. But the cat gradually comes to see that Burner’s new power does not corrupt him; in fact, “he was beginning to act and talk like a real pastor.” He improves the parish’s facilities, visits the sick more often, and even thinks seriously about his sermons:

In the past, he’d boasted that he thought of whatever he was going to say on Sunday in the time it took him to walk from the altar to the pulpit. He was [now] not afraid to speak on the parishioners’ duty to contribute generously to the support of the church, a subject neglected by Father Malt, who’d been satisfied with what the people wanted to give — very little. Father Burner tried to get them interested in the church. He said it was a matter of pride — pride in the good sense of the word.

The relationship between priest and pet changes as well, and they trade moments of selfless charity toward each other. And although Burner’s hopes are once again dashed at the end, he handles the bad news well the third time around. His mature response is itself a great mark of his development, and chances are readers will agree when Fritz declares, “I was happy for him.”

Because he appears in three stories that vary so widely in tone and point of view, Burner is among the most exciting and complex of Powers’s characters, and certainly my favorite of those outside of his novels. Indeed, he develops, and endears himself to the reader, more than most characters in anyone’s short fiction.

Powers’s short stories and novels are available in recent editions published by the New York Review of Books. Buyer beware: Though these editions are nice-looking, they are fragile!

Author

  • Christopher Scalia

    Christopher Scalia is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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