J. F. Powers: Lions, Harts, Leaping Does (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 32)

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He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, fiery-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century:”Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”

A few weeks ago I read Paul Horgan’s story “The Devil in the Desert” about a dying priest and a rattlesnake. This week I read J. F. Powers short story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” about a dying priest and a canary. As far as stories go, the canary wins hands down!

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Powers puts the precise amount of cynicism into Father Didymus to keep the story from being soft and sentimental but yet still tug at our heart strings.  The rambling thoughts of  the dying Didymus along with his short conversations with Father Titus, a priest with more going for him than meets the eye, parallel the flitting canary in a cage provided by Titus. Powers makes the canary into one of my favorite non-human, non-speaking characters:

So far as he was able to detect the moods of the canary he participated in them. In the morning the canary, bright and clownish, flitted back and forth between the two perches in the cage, hanging from the sides and cocking its little tufted head at Didymus querulously.

The canary gives both a humor and a sadness to the wrestlings of Didymus over his past failures and his attempts to reconcile himself to his life as he heads toward the end of it. I think this story has broken into my top ten favorites for the year.

In Powers’ classic story “Death of a Favorite”, he also uses an animal, this time a cat, to tell the story of two priests with less than noble intentions.  He has a way with animals.

“Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. I read it when I selected the Ace of Diamonds for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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J. F. Powers: Dawn (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 30)

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A sealed envelope shows up in a church collection with “The Pope – Personal” written on it. It’s known by the parishioners that the offering will be delivered to the Pope personally by the Bishop. So not knowing what is inside this particular envelope puts Father Udovic in somewhat of a dilemma: open the envelope and dismiss the wishes of the donor or don’t open the envelope and risk something less than appropriate going directly to the Pope.

With whom did the envelope originate is the central mystery surrounding J. F. Powers short story “Dawn”.  As trite as the problem may seem in the grand scheme of things, Powers manages to turn it into an odd little “who done it”? The most intriguing aspect being Father Udovic’s imagining of all the different people who might be responsible and for what reason.

Father Udovic (and the reader) eventually discovers the donor’s identity; however, the lesson the priest would like to extend to the “culprit” is a lesson that could easily be extended back to the priest, himself, and the church in general – kind of a spiritual catch-22:

It seemed to him, sitting there saying nothing, that they saw each other as two people who’d sinned together on earth might see each other in hell, unchastened even then, only blaming each other for what had happened.

This is the third story I’ve read by Powers. This one and the baseball story “Jamesie” are well worth reading. However, for a truly great Powers story, I would recommend the feline-narrated “Death of a Favorite” .

The Best American Catholic Short Stories: A Sheed & Ward Collection

I read “Dawn” this week when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 30 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of The Best American Catholic Short Stories edited by Daniel McVeigh and Patricia Schnapp. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

J. F. Powers: Jamesie (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 3)

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I drew the Ten of Diamonds this week for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. Diamonds is the suit that corresponds to stories about baseball and for Week 3, I read J. F. Powers’ “Jamesie”. This story is included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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“Jamesie” appears to be at least somewhat autobiographical in that it takes place in Jacksonville, Illinois where Powers grew up. It also is set during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge which is when Powers would have been the same age as his protagonist, Jamesie, and J. F. Powers full name is James Farl Powers.

The story is another age-old tale like T. C. Boyle’s “The Hector Quesadilla Story”. This time it’s the story of a young kid realizing that his hero isn’t as noble and righteous as he wanted him to be. Lefty, the pitcher for the Jayville Indies, tends to give Jamesie a good deal of attention for a locally famous minor-league baseball player. Lefty gets Jamesie in the games for free and always makes a point to talk to him.

What Powers does amazingly well is let the readers understand why Jamesie would revere Lefty so much and at the same time, make the readers realize that Lefty isn’t really a good person.

The story is told from the point of view of Jamesie, whose mother is dead and whose father is distant. He is on his own to make money so he can buy each new volume of the serial story Baseball Bill. He has an Aunt Kate who at least tries to be a mother to him and two uncles that tend to make fun of him.  When Lefty falls from grace, Jamesie realizes that the other adults in his life were right. That’s pretty much a kick in the gut to him.

In spite of the sadness and frustration that hang over the story, a section in which Jamesie and his friend, Francis, play out Baseball Bill in the backyard made me smile:

“And who’s behind this, Blackie?”

“I don’t know.”

“Say it’s the powerful gambling syndicate.”

“It’s them.”

“Ah, ha! Knock the ash off your cigar.”

“Have I got one?”

“Yes, and you’ve got strong drink on your breath, too.”

“Whew!”

Blackie should have fixed him with his small, piglike eyes.

“Fix me with your small, piglike eyes.”

“Wait a minute, Jamesie!”

“Bill. Go ahead. Fix me.”

“OK But you don’t get to be Bill all the time.”

“Now blow your foul breath in my face.”

“There!”

“Now ask me to have a cigar. Go ahead.”

It kind of reminds me of when my friends and I would argue over who got to be Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.

 

A Fourth Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the fourth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds. To celebrate, I am posting my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read in 2015.  They are in order from 10 to 1.

10.) Here We Are by Dorothy Parker- A very funny story with one of my favorite quotations of the year:

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

9.) Miami-New York by Martha Gellhorn- One of Ernest Hemingway’s wives seems to have more of a sense of humor than he did.

8.) Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers – One of my favorite narrators comes in the form of a cat.

7.) The Country Husband by John Cheever – A depressing but brilliantly written story about life in the suburbs with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as the soundtrack:

Then Donald Goslin, who lived at the corner, began to play the “Moonlight Sonata”. He did this nearly every night. He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity – of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the street beneath the trees like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lonely housemaid – some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-floor room.

6.) The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – I liked this story so much I read more of Proulx’s Wyoming stories from her collection Close Range.

5.) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the story that has pushed me beyond simply an appreciation for Oates’ work. It’s by far the scariest story I read this year.

4.) In the Gloaming by Alice Elliot Dark – Tear jerker? Yes. Sentimental? No. Saddest story I read this year.

3.) God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen by Ernest Hemingway – A disturbing story with one of my favorite first lines:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

2.) A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow – The title by no means gives away how funny and irreverent this story is.

1.) A Voice in the Night by Steven Millhauser- My fascination with Steven Millhauser’s work only increased with this story and it contained one of my favorite final lines:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

 

J. F. Powers: Death of a Favorite

Deal Me In – Week 37

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For Week 37 of Deal Me In, I discovered another new-to-me author J. F. Powers.  In drawing the Jack of Hearts, I read his short story “Death of a Favorite” found in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.  Like many of the stories I’ve read from this collection, it’s a gem. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Father Malt lives in a rural rectory somewhere in the midwest not far from Chicago.  He’s growing old, has difficulty hearing and looks after his cat Fritz with affection that he seems to give everyone with whom he comes in contact.  As Father Burner and Father Philbert visit him with two missionaries, the reader realizes that not all priests are as kind and gentle as Father Malt.  Power-hungry Father Burner longs for Father Malt’s position.  While he might seem respectable in the presence of the aging priest, Father Burner is downright mean behind his back.

How does the reader know what goes on behind Father Malt’s back?  That’s where the odd little twist about this story comes into play.  The story is told from the point of view of Fritz the cat and Powers makes this work astonishingly well. Fritz is debonaire and sophisticated as he chases birds and mice and lurks in the dark shadows listening to the loathsome Father Burner.  He also immediately understands that Father Burner is not a cat lover.  The abuse Fritz suffers at the hands of Father Burner and a crucifix is just plain evil – although there is a dark humor to it.

I won’t give away the details of the ingenious ending but it’s perfect for a story of a cat and a priest:

I heard the young missionary arriving from an errand in Father Philbert’s brother’s car, late for dinner he thought, but just in time to see the stricken look I saw coming into the eyes of my persecutors. This look alone made up for everything I’d suffered at their hands.  Purring now, I was rubbing up against the crucifix, myself effecting my utter revenge.