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The Fiction of J.F. Powers

In response to:

Relicts of a Catholic Renaissance from the October 10, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

Garry Wills is an acute observer of Catholic culture, as he indicates in his informed review of the letters of J.F. Powers [NYR, October 10]. But he obviously fails to appreciate the artistry of Powers’s fiction, a writer who was well aware of Catholicism’s foibles and stupidities, but loved “the Church” nonetheless.

Flannery O’Connor, among his many admirers, wrote that Powers was “one of the country’s finest story writers,” who, like other good writers, “knows how to write and that writing is his vocation.” Evelyn Waugh regarded Powers as “almost unique in his country as a lay writer who is at ease in the Church; whose whole art, moreover, is everywhere infused and directed by his Faith.”

Powers was not a satirist, but an ironist, with a realist’s eye for detail. And his characters, however faulty, are capable of positive change. Priests who are central characters in his two novels, for example, have obvious limitations, duly noted, but eventually redeem themselves to some extent.

In this regard, Flannery O’Connor’s review of Powers’s first novel, The Presence of Grace (1956), is much to the point:

In addition to a deadly accurate eye and ear, he has a sense of form which controls what he sees and hears in such a way that the many levels of meaning are all brought successfully to operate in the story…. And one feels that he has not merely seen the immovable pastor, the ambitious curate, the salesman missionary, the gothic housekeeper, the regulars of Altar and Rosary, but that he has suffered them and has come through with his Faith intact.

One would hardly guess, from Mr. Wills’s characterization of Powers’s fiction, that it is subtle, precise, and extremely witty. In other words, one must not confuse Powers’s obvious limitations as a family member with his achievement as a writer. And it is a tribute to NYRB Classics that his books remain still in print.

Michael D. True
Emeritus Professor
Assumption College
Worcester, Massachusetts

Garry Wills replies:

Ironist?

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