Ever since I read Fr Longenecker's views on J F Powers' Morte d'Urban, I had resolved to read a bit of this, to me unknown, novelist who seemed to inhabit a space most of us would love to explore: a Catholic author writing novels set in a Catholic world. Graham Greene without the sex, hypocrisy, heresy, tendentious posturing, and adolescent showoff mannerisms which made him a houseld word in EngLit but a sorry advertisement for the Faith. (You imagine elderly female Tabletistas still enjoying a frisson when they reach down the well-thumbed paperback of The Heart of the Matter from the shelf in the study and remember how dear Fr H*****t had explained how the artist was so very close to God, so close that what we saw as bad or harmful was just our reflection in the beauty of the artist's creation ... but I digress.)
I read Morte d'Urban and came to a similar conclusion to Fr L, namely that the author had picked on the story of a soul: how a priest had stopped trying to be what he wanted God to want him to be, and had chosen to be what God wanted him to be instead, even if it did disappoint some people. There was a particularly deft touch in making me at least feel for the period I was reading that I had some feel for what living in places like Illinois in the 1950s really was like - the Catholicsm that was at the heart of the story wasn't particularly the overt theme of the narrative, and that meant that I had time to think about point in time when America was outsrtipping the rest of the world without having the technological ability to be conscious of where the rest of the world was; a point where the car (more likely the automobile) was finally winning and driving the train and the coach towards oblivion; while all the time ubiquitous air conditioning was not even a figment of the imagination and the climate was to be endured, not vanquished.
I ordered a couple more books: this time of Powers' short stories, and when faced a week and a bit ago with suddenly having to decamp for work, chose them to take as being new and different. And they really were.
I had to read most of the stories twice: once to understand the world in which they were set, and only the second time to try to understand the story.
We think we understand America (the USA, that is) but in fact what we understand is what the social media tell us America is. For the period in which Powers is writing, America, for any European, is the gritty East Coast or the laid back West Coast. there was also the West - the Wild West - but an urban world which doesn't reference even the east and west coasts, never mind a wider world, is something very new, to me at least.
I have no point of reference when dealing with this world: urban life in a mid-West town in the 1950s, where the Catholicsm has come neither from ireland nor from the Latin world, but from Germany is foreign. But so is the America of some people using public transport because not everyone has cars; or travelling by train rather than plane; or the non-existence of air conditioning.
Powers describes this world so well that I found myself lost at times just in trying to imagine living in the world, instead of following him where he was leading. But as an author he is very forgiving: going back to stories a second time, there was always a detail to trip me up which I had missed the first time round. Like Jane Austen, or P G Wodehouse, he creates a world so perfectly that it becomes a real backdrop and the stories painted on it acquire some of their truth purely because he has written them there.
You are beginning to get the idea that I think I'm on to something - well, you're right. I don't want to compare J F Powers with anybody else - "the Kingsley Amis of Illinois" on the fromt cover would be enough blurb to stop me from even reading the back cover - but just suggest that here is a writer whose skill with words, matched to an understanding of an environment to describe using them, might have ended up in something very special indeed.