31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 21: “Prince of Darkness” by J.F. Powers

May 21, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

From The Stories of J.F. Powers

I recall getting a letter from William Carlos Williams in which he said that writers have each their own natural breath. Some take short breaths, others long. Whitman took long breaths, Emily Dickinson short ones. It required talent to judge what your natural form of breathing was. I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story. He tried for the longer breath of the novel twice because, I assume, he wanted to deal with a bigger cast of characters and a wider screen. But I think his talent was happiest in the concentration, the focus, of the short story. It was as if he thought life most clearly disclosed in the telling anecdote.

– Dennis Donoghue

J.F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests

– Headline in The New York Times, June 17, 1999

Both of those assessments are correct, but the Times headline seems unbearably reductionist, even for a newspaper obituary. Powers’ great subject was the priesthood: novelist Mary Gordon said, incorrectly, “He had one subject and that was priests,” and Joseph Bottum called him “the greatest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century,” a contentious assessment on its face (as anyone who has ever read Flannery O’Connor will recognize). Gordon’s statement was obviously meant as hyperbole, but it manages to ignore stories such as “Renner,” which Donoghue points out is “entirely secular.” Still, his interest in the priesthood was abiding over the course of his career, and formed the subject of much of his best work.

“Prince of Darkness” is about one day in the life of a corpulent, cynical, unambitious priest named Ernest Burner. Far from an example of spiritual piety, Father Burner embraces the secular world: he meets with an insurance salesman named Thomas Nash Tracy (T.N.T., an acronym that Father Burner attaches to his own assessment of Tracy as a B.C.L. – a Big Catholic Layman) to discuss the purchase of a life insurance policy, skips out on his rounds to visit the sick so that he can take flying lessons, indulges in hamburgers and a bottle of beer at a local diner, putts golf balls into a hole fashioned out of his roman collar, and jettisons the butt of a cigarette in the church’s holy water font. Burner is fodder for much comedy, especially regarding his weight, which is excessive. He is known as “the circular priest” because a journal to which he once submitted an article misprinted the word “secular” as “circular,” a telling error in Powers’ story of squelched piety, and gets ribbed by his own Dean when a young girl approaching confirmation pays the priests a visit:

Then tell me, young lady, what are the seven capital sins? Pride, Covetousness … Lust, Anger. Uh. The child’s mother, one of those tough Irish females built like a robin, worried to death, lips silently forming the other sins for her daughter. Go ahead, dear. Envy. Proceed, child. Yes, Monsignor. Uh … Sloth. To be sure. That’s six. One more. And … uh. Fear of the Lord, perhaps? Meekness? Hey, Monsignor, ain’t them the Divine Counsels! The Dean, smiling, looking at Father Burner’s plate, covered with chicken bones, at his stomach, fighting the vest, and for a second into the child’s eyes, slipping her the seventh sin. Gluttony, Monsignor!

“Sloth. To be sure.” The girl’s words are not as idle as they appear, tapping into Father Burner’s nature even as she remains blithely unaware how close to the mark she has come. Father Burner’s foibles – sins seems too strong a word, really – arise largely out of his complacency, his lack of motivation to strive for much of anything, despite his most fervent desire to one day have his own parish so that he can hire his mother as his housekeeper.

Father Burner’s lackadaisical spirituality is contrasted with that of the local Vicar General, whom Burner feels to be “troubled with sanctity,” a condition “which might lead to anything else, the cloister or insanity.” By contrast, Father Burner feels that “the mark of the true priest” has eluded him, despite his conviction that his vows have locked him into a permanent association with the priesthood:

The mark of the true priest was heavy on the Dean. … It was on every priest he could think of, including a few on the bum, and his good friend and companion, Father Desmond. But it was not on him, not properly. They, the others, were stained with it beyond all disguise or disfigurement – indelibly, as indeed Holy Orders by its sacramental nature must stain, for keeps in this world and the one to come. “Thou art a priest forever.” With him, however, it was something else and less, a mask or badge which he could and did remove at will, a temporal part to be played, almost only a doctor’s or lawyer’s. They, the others, would be lost in any persecution. The mark would doom them. But he, if that dies irae ever came – and it was every plump seminarian’s apple-cheeked dream – could pass as the most harmless and useful of humans, a mailman, a bus rider, a husband. But would he. No. They would see. I, he would say, appearing unsought before the judging rabble, am a priest, of the order of Malchizedech.

It is not that Father Burner spurns the priesthood or fails to take its implications seriously, simply that as a fallible human being he is prone to indulge his baser urges and shirk his more vaunted duties. It is this self-satisfied complacency that Father Burner’s Archbishop identifies in refusing him the parish he desires and transferring him instead to another diocese where he will act as assistant to the pastor. “I trust that in your new appointment,” the Archbishop writes in his letter to Father Burner, “you will find not peace but a sword.” Father Burner’s spirit may be willing, but his flesh is weak, and only the kind of righteous anger that Jesus advocated in Matthew’s Gospel will shake him out of his spiritual stupor.

(This one’s for Nathan Whitlock, who got there before I did.)

Of lit salons and author readings

April 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Last night at The Spoke Club, Open Book Toronto hosted the inaugural edition of the Toronto Literary Salon, in partnership with The Spoke and Thompson Hotels. Yesterday’s event featured a panel consisting of authors Russell Smith (Girl Crazy), Joey Comeau (One Bloody Thing After Another), and David Eddie (Damage Control). The panel was moderated by Nathan Whitlock (A Week of This).

Modelled on the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Open Book’s new endeavour is meant to be a place where authors and readers can come together in a casual environment to converse, exchange ideas, and maybe even get into some friendly disagreements. From Open Book’s website:

Do what engaged and curious people have done for centuries and gather with writers for a salon. The point? To amuse each other, to be inspired by writing and culture, to expand one’s knowledge and opinions through conversation. Salons are where true dialogue (and yes, often feisty arguments) emerge.

There weren’t many feisty arguments to be had last night, in part, I suspect, because of the size of the group, which increased the intimidation factor. (The audience filled the room, spilling over into a little alcove at the back, which was separated by a wall, so the poor souls who found themselves sequestered there could listen to the proceedings, but could not see the panel.) Moreover, the event was more structured than it was perhaps intended to be, resembling more a typical reading and author Q&A than a free-form discussion between audience and panel. Things did loosen up toward the end, but time constraints cut the conversation short just as it appeared to be gearing up.

One reason the event felt so structured was that it kicked off with each author giving a short reading. (Apparently, neither the authors nor the moderator were aware that there was a reading component to the event prior to arriving on the scene.) As anyone who has ever attended a reading knows, the culture of author readings imposes a separation between the performer and the audience. It’s difficult to smoothly transition from that kind of format to a more open conversation among a large(ish) number of individuals.

There was some discussion among the panelists about whether they enjoyed giving/attending readings – Eddie was in favour of them, Smith was opposed (and did an hilarious, spot-on impersonation of the kind of droning, monotone voice that certain poets adopt when reading their work aloud). Yr. humble correspondent tends to side with Smith, finding the vast majority of author readings tedious in the extreme. There is also something frankly perverse about expecting authors – who are usually introverted individuals and who spend the bulk of their days alone in a room wrestling with the contents of their own heads – to get up on a stage in front of an audience and entertain. The panelists were in general agreement that a reading is a public performance, but it seems to me that an author’s performance exists on the page. Once the book is finished, the author’s job is done. It’s now the reader’s turn to engage with the text the author has created.

I say that I tend to side with Smith, because there are isolated instances in which an author has been so proficient at performing his or her work that I have actually found myself – almost against my will – enjoying the experience. One example of this is a David Foster Wallace reading I attended years ago at Harbourfront’s International Fesitval of Authors here in Toronto. Wallace read a section of Infinite Jest dealing with a couple of inept thieves who burgle the home of a French Canadian man with a head cold. When I read the passage myself, it seemed clever, but nothing special. However, when Wallace read it, providing the requisite pauses and emphases, it was eye-wateringly funny. Here is an instance in which an author’s interpretation of his own material actually transformed the material in my estimation, making it leap off the page where once it had just sat there, inert. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, authors (who may be incredibly engaging when speaking extemporaneously) lose all their charisma and appeal the minute they begin reciting from their work. Not for nothing do people in the know try to time their arrivals at book launches strategically so that they miss the readings but are still able to avail themselves of the open bar.

I look forward to future iterations of the Toronto Literary Salon (there are three more scheduled, one in early summer and the other two in the fall), and hope that they will de-emphasize the more structured component and encourage greater dialogue between authors and readers. The danger is that such a free-form discussion could descend into anarchy, or be dominated by one or two voices. However, the upside would be an enhanced engagement with authors off the page, and perhaps even a few of those feisty arguments that sound so intriguing.

Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.