Neither do some readers and writers. Powers was a famously punctilious craftsman who claimed to spend the morning placing a comma and the afternoon removing it, a painstaking aesthetic he shared with a few poets – J.V. Cunningham, Edgar Bowers – and one of his rare enthusiasms among fiction writers, James Joyce. Before his death in 1999, age eighty-one, Powers wrote for almost sixty years and turned out three story collections and two novels, a decidedly non-Oatesian rate of production. A handful of his stories are among the best in the language, including “Renner” which begins:
“Except for a contemporary placard or two, the place conspired to set me dreaming of the good old days I had never known. The furniture did it—the cloudy mirrors, the grandiose mahogany bar, the tables and chairs ornate with spools and scrollwork, the burnished brass coat hooks and cuspidors, all as shiny-ugly as the day they were made, and swillish brown paintings, inevitable subjects, fat tippling friars in cellars, velvet cavaliers elegantly eyeing sherry, the deadliest of still-life fruit, but no fishes on platters.”
The style, mistaken by dullards for a non-style, is unlike any other, though sometimes it echoes with Dubliners. No detail is arbitrary, thrown in as padding. Powers, like Evelyn Waugh at his best, almost never deploys a passive sentence, one without a twist, a time-delayed engine of irony. The logic of the first sentence unfolds conventionally until the final four words. The voice mingles formal and colloquial. Powers is knowledgeable about matters of taste and class, vanity and the absence of pretension. He has a knack for selecting unexpected words – “swillish,” “deadliest,” even “conspired” – that are precise and memorable without showing off. Powers is one of the funniest fiction writers.
Thanks to Dave Lull for passing along “The Gospel According to J. F. Powers,” written by the writer’s friend and former student, John Rosengren. The passage at the top is from his remembrance, as is this:
“`There is a common quality in all art; in a sense that really good paintings, sculpture, music, writing have,” he told two students interviewing him for the Saint John’s literary magazine. `I can’t name it. It has something to do with God-given spirit, going beyond oneself. I think it’s possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It’s possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy of God’s attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I do believe it. I don’t think God is there and we’re here--and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.’”