I read the novels of JF Powers when I was a convert, taken aback by the seedier and grittier moments, but finding there something I had located in Greene and even Waugh, a world weariness combined with sour perspicacity and loyalty to an older vision and faith commitment. A new appreciation by F X Feeney in the LA Review of Books:
Late in Wheat That Springeth Green, Joe offers a theological rumination that could apply to his creator’s view of literature, as much as life itself:
Religion was a weak force today, owing to a decline in human intelligence. It was now easy to see how the Church, though she’d endure to the end, as promised by Our Lord, would become a mere remnant of herself. In the meantime, though, a priest had to get on with his job, such as it was. As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew that feeling, but he also knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality, and that was something these days.
If Powers hated the Sign of Peace, one can only imagine what he would have made of the worldwide sex abuse scandals involving priests that flared into the headlines just two years after his death. These have become — tragically; deservedly, given the long histories of pompous denial — so much the image of Catholicism outside the Church in the present century that, for the time being, it has thoroughly tarnished the image of the priesthood. The damage all around will need generations to undo. Yet Powers was always tuned in to the destructive force that is the potential of any priest: take Father Burner, viciously blasting that woman in the confessional, earlier; this is why the Catholic press so often attacked Powers while he was being honored elsewhere. He understood the abuse of authority at its core. He further understood that every possible evil rises out of that first abuse. However repressed or repressive he might have been as a father, he was free of sexual neurosis to a degree uncommon for a Catholic male of his day, and the priests he created in his fiction are similarly comfortable inside the armor of their own skins. I’ve emphasized the sexual passages in his work here precisely to underscore this healthy aspect of his vision. If the Church is morally underwater with the mass public at the moment, Powers’ truthful, unsparing, unsentimental creations are a lifeline of purest oxygen. They are also images of humanity made to last, Church or no Church, ripe for our discovery.