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Paul Baumann

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

The letters of J. F. Powers.

A writer of many gifts and man of many foibles, J. F. Powers possessed an indelible voice, an unerring ear, a quintessentially American sense of independence, and a gnarly Irish Catholic fatalism. In "Look How the Fish Live," his 1975 story about a petulant father called on by his importuning children to save a doomed bird, Powers' protagonist ponders the seemingly random cruelty of nature. What explanation could there be for the pervasive violence and waste present, absurdly, even in the most domesticated suburban back yard? What or who was responsible? It can only be God, the father concludes. Powers allows him to ruminate further: "It wasn't surprising, for all problems were at bottom theological. He'd like to put a few questions to God. God, though, knowing his thoughts, knew his questions, and the world was already in possession of all the answers that would be forthcoming from God."

Powers had a reputation for irascibility, and that reputation is richly confirmed by the correspondence collected in Suitable Accommodations. There is as much growl in his writing as there is wit, and there is a surfeit of that. A short-story writer of brilliance, he was admired by several generations of readers—especially Catholics, for he wrote almost exclusively about Catholic priests. Powers staked out the everyday conflicts and absurdities of rectory and parish life in the Midwest (mostly Minnesota) in the way Faulkner annexed Yoknapatawpha County or Woody Allen the Upper East Side. He knew the territory, and he knew how to turn the ephemeral nature of experience into something more lasting. Writing to a friend who had detected herself in one of his stories, Powers explained how fiction gets written. "You were and were not in it," he wrote. "The requirements of art demand that you do violence sometimes to the facts as they took place, or interpret them differently, or make up incidents and conjure up characters that life itself, being such an erratic artist, seldom provides." ...

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