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9/4/2013 8:20:00 AM
Daughter paints picture of late Catholic novelist's family life
"Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963," edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 2013). 400 pp., $28.
Catholic News Service

Even before his first novel about a country club priest, "Morte d'Urban" (which won the National Book Award in 1963), J.F. Powers intended to write a novel about family life. He died in 1999 without doing so. Instead, he published two more collections of short stories, mostly about the clergy, and a second novel with another Roman-collared protagonist. Now his eldest daughter has put together a collection of the writer's letters and occasional journal entries that give a picture of the family life Powers never fashioned into a novel.

The organizing theme shows the writer's unending pursuit of finding a home. Though the letter recipients serve as a supporting cast, Powers himself emerges as the only character of the imagined novel who gets fleshed out.

His letters reveal a man of many paradoxes. Despite his insistence that the only way he will earn his sustenance is by his writing, he fritters away his working hours with distractions and procrastinations. He continues to produce children -- five with his wife Betty Wahl -- but is not a family man, refusing to change diapers and preferring to spend holidays with friends or his parents.

As his family grows, so does his desire to provide them "suitable accommodations," but he persists with his peripatetic ways, wandering from teaching fellowships to rentals in St. Paul and his wife's native St. Cloud and thrice Ireland with stints at his in-laws' house in between. He remains critical of the church and professes to be anti-clerical while two of his best friends -- and one of his benefactors -- are priests.

We also discover a man who enjoys listening to baseball on the radio, attending hockey games, betting on horses, playing golf and downing an occasional Hamm's ("the best of the better beers"), yet deplores much of American society. He finds fault with the glut of physicians: "popped out of the medical factories like horseflies in August." He checks out television in the '50s but declares "it's not worth it." And he lambasts advertising: "One would do well to sell one's soul to Betty Crocker, at an early age, for invincible ignorance."

There's plenty of the literary life included. With Evelyn Waugh, Katherine Anne Porter and Sean O'Faolain among his correspondents, Powers cites inspirations for stories, complains about bad reviews, details his struggles writing a novel and comments on other writers from William Faulkner to Graham Greene. In a letter to Robert Lowell, he divulges "a secret theory" of his that "action is better and easier when described not in chronological, realistic terms but as impression, with here and there a realistic effect." He also complains to his wife Betty, a fellow short story writer whose stories appeared in the New Yorker, about the state of Catholic literature: "Fiction is not taken seriously. . . we are still in a ghetto, Catholics who write, or even read."

There's a love story, of sorts, in the many letters courting his future wife, whom he proposed to two days after meeting in person, when he was 28 and she was 21. He had been smitten by her novel, which one of her teachers had sent him to read. He professes his affection for her earnestly but also lets her know that he expects her to cook for him, suggests she stomach his opinions without trying to bend them and patronizes her: "(Nelson Algren's novels) are probably too rough for someone as nice as you."

Powers' readers will recognize his characteristic sparse style and understated wit. Discouraged by the soft sales of his National Book Award-winning novel, he writes, "May large birds defecate on the heads of most of the reading public for not buying the works of J. F. Powers." In another letter to his good friend Father Harvey Egan, Powers comments on the bishop's homily at midnight Mass then adds, "By the way, he traded in the baby-blue Cad for a black Continental."

Whatever his personal flaws, Powers remains a writer of immense intelligence, insight and humor, which these letters again make known.

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