By James Marcus
12:00 PM EDT, August 16, 2013
Back in 2000, when John Updike assembled "The Best American Short Stories of the Century," he included "Death of a Favorite," by J.F. Powers. Interviewing Updike at the time, I mentioned how pleased I was to see Powers in the collection. "He was once, you might know, a fixture at the New Yorker," Updike replied. "Now Powers is almost totally forgotten, but I thought he deserved a place."
He did, he does. Yet James Farl Powers has always been a hard sell for the American reading public, despite a cadre of distinguished fans (Robert Lowell, Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Anne Porter) and the National Book Award he won for his first novel, "Morte D'Urban" (1962).
Part of the problem may have been his subject matter. Powers mostly wrote about Catholic priests in the Midwest, viewed by their neighbors as incense-huffing exotics. His protagonists are outsiders, never quite at home on the Great Plains and uneasy about the material temptations offered by the postwar American boom.
Clearly these situations failed to resonate with the masses, at least on the scale Powers had hoped for. But to judge from "Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963," they were pressing matters for the author. Powers was born in Jacksonville, Ill., in 1917. As a young man he gravitated toward a Catholic splinter group known as the Detachers, who called for Christians to shuck off material goods and worldly concerns. The Detachers were also pacifists, and with their encouragement, Powers declined to join the Army in 1943 and was sentenced to three years in the federal penitentiary at Sandstone, Minn.
Little more than a year later, working as a hospital orderly in St. Paul as a condition of his parole, he met a gifted young writer named Betty Wahl. Two days after their initial encounter on Nov. 10, 1945, he proposed marriage and she accepted. This triggered a spate of ardent love letters, followed by more than four decades of conjugal exasperation. Wahl, whose stories also appeared in the New Yorker, somehow managed to write while tending to five children and one charmingly recalcitrant husband.
The problem was that Powers, as he made clear during their courtship, was opposed to any sort of regular employment.
"The jobs I had, in bookstores and the rest, were never honest," he wrote Wahl on Dec. 5, 1945. "Not for me. Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions or a worm fly a kite?" Powers was not lazy. His objection to the 9-to-5 universe was principled — a Detacher's disdain for getting and spending, and a brilliant artist's determination to cultivate his gift against all odds, like "Daniel Boone cutting [his] way through that bourgeois wilderness."
But the practical costs were enormous. The family was often broke. They moved with appalling frequency, always on the lookout for cut-rate or even free housing (the latter supplied by Wahl's family, with dwindling yet remarkable patience).
Eventually this scampering around small-town Minnesota struck Powers as a dead end, and in 1951 he relocated his brood to Ireland — a kind of ancestral paradise, where a semi-pauperized writer of short fiction could lead a dignified life. Yet Powers decamped back to America the following year, a pattern he repeated three more times before finally settling in Collegeville, Minn., in 1975.
What's amazing, given this meandering and self-mortifying life, is how often "Suitable Accommodations" made me laugh. There is some variation in tone, depending on whether Powers is addressing family members, fellow writers or his favorite priest, Father Harvey Egan.
Yet devotees of the author's work — three collections of short stories plus a superb second novel, "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988) — will recognize his voice in an instant: droll, delicious, resigned to the mass production of human folly, including his own. His persona here is simply another J.F. Powers character, as memorable as the beleaguered priests in his fiction.
Powers always intended to offset his ecclesiastical tales with a novel of family life. "Suitable Accommodations" is about as close as we'll get, though it is, of course, only a partial work of self-portraiture. The letters selected by Katherine A. Powers (the author's daughter, herself a discerning literary critic) end in 1963. Powers lived until 1999, eking out marvelous sentences and selling few books.
Yet he was canny enough about his art to see its likeness in the stone walls crisscrossing the Irish countryside — "this vast achievement," he wrote in a 1958 letter, "much of it make-work in famine times, but a lot of it going right down into the sea and sound as if laid by God himself." Coming from one of his clerical protagonists, the comparison would border on blasphemy. From Powers himself, it is something else entirely — what even a nonbeliever might be willing to classify as God's own truth.
Marcus is executive editor of Harper's Magazine. His next book, "Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments," will be published in 2015.
An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963
Edited by Katherine A. Powers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 433 pages, $30
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