Sunday, October 26, 2008

`A Book You'd Be Happy to Read Again and Again'

“For an instant Mr Newman succeeded in making it plain that he, like any man of his business experience, was meant for better things. A moment later, in an interesting ceremony which took place in his heart, Mr Newman surrendered his well-loved white collar. He knew that Mr Shanahan, with that dark vision peculiar to personnel men, had witnessed the whole thing.”

Do you hear echoes of Dubliners, its compacted language and shabby-genteel lives? J.F. Powers, dead almost 10 years, professed admiration for two fiction writers, Joyce and Evelyn Waugh, both Catholic and, like Powers, irrepressibly funny at their most serious. Into the waiting room Saturday, on the eve of my 56th birthday, I carried The Stories of J.F. Powers and reread “Renner” and “The Old Bird, A Love Story.” The passage above is from the latter. Both stories are priestless, rare in Powers’ small body of work – two novels, three collections of stories.

Mr Newman is old and unemployed, and his wife doesn’t work outside the home. He has always worked in an office. From a reference to “non-defense industries,” we know World War II casts a shadow across the story. Mr Newman is eager to please and his sense of pride is elastic. He surprises himself and gets hired and put to work immediately in the shipping room. He packs goods in boxes and binds them with twine:

“Mr Newman, gritting his false teeth, tackled his first assignment for the company: a half-dozen sets of poker chips, a box of rag dolls, 5,000 small American flags, and a boy’s sled going to Waupaca, Wisconsin.”

For the first time in his life, Mr Newman punches a time clock. He counts his change before spending 15 cents on a hamburger and coffee. The “vaultlike solemnity” of the washroom impresses him. He is an elderly man who often feels like a baffled child. He overhears his boss tell the personnel man:

“Yeah, when you said the old bird was handy with rope I thought, boy, he’s old enough to think about using some on himself. My God, Shanahan, if this keeps up we’ll have to draft them from the old people’s home.”

At home, Mr. Newman is ashamed and briefly testy with his wife. There’s no mention of hugs or kisses but they seem fond and respectful. She opens the organdie curtains and together they marvel:

“Snowflakes tumbled in feathery confusion past the yellow light burning in the court, wonderfully white against the night, smothering the whole dirty, roaring, guilty city in innocence and silence and beauty.”

Do you hear another echo from Dubliners, of “The Dead,” its final, resolving chords?:

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

But “The Old Bird, A Love Story” is not finished. Mr Newman half-brags, “I’ll bet you had no idea your husband was so handy with rope.” And then, “The people, the ones I’ve met at least – well, they all seem very nice.” Here’s the rest:

“`Then maybe they’ll keep you after Christmas, Charley!’

“He looked sharply at her and could tell she was sorry she’d said that. She understood what must follow. He opened his mouth to speak, said nothing, and then, closing his eyes to the truth, he said:

“`Yes. You know, I think they will. I’m sure of it.’

“He coughed. That was not the way it was at all. It had happened again. He was the bad actor again. His only audience smiled and loved him.”

In 13 pages, Powers renders the fear and shame of aging, the importance of work and the mutual dependence of a long-married couple – more than many novels, but gracefully, economically, without false sentiment. In his introduction to Powers’ Stories, Denis Donoghue says it better than I:

“A work of literature is a book you’d be happy to read again and again – like the book in your hand.”

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