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The Stories of J.F. Powers (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – March 31, 2000

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Editorial Reviews


"Powers is a genuine original. Read him…for the pleasures he bestows of ear and eye, but read him too for the supreme trustworthiness of his vision, a trust earned by impeccable craft, and by a balance perfectly struck between a cutting irony and a beleaguered faith." — Mary Gordon

"In these stories, there is a lovely, travelling hesitancy, an obliquity, so that they seem to creep up on the reader….The strongest of them are surely among the finest written by an American." — James Wood, The New Yorker

"To read the first story (“The Lord’s Day”) in this collection is to put down the book with the sense of having read as great a short story as any ever written, and I mean by anybody: by Cheever, Sherwood Anderson, Checkov. What ease they have is in the style: there are no easy morals here, no edifying lessons, but their vigor and correctness make them delightful to read. And while they’re terribly funny — laugh—out—loud funny, in spots — they’re also complex and deeply serious." — Donna Tartt, Harper’s

"Power’s particular blend of trenchancy and bleak wit….Powers’ short pieces remain more effective than his novels. His was a gift of understatement and speed, and at his best his narrative economy is breathtaking….It is a pleasure to see [them] reissued…in a single volume. For a collection that spans three decades, The Stories of J.F. Powers isn’t especially long, but the work is striking, impelled by a vision that has been cleansed by deep intelligence and powerful subject matter." — Erin McGraw, The Georgia Review

About the Author

J. F. Powers (1917-1999) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, and studied at Northwestern University while holding a variety of jobs in Chicago and working on his writing. He published his first stories in The Catholic Worker and, as a pacifist, spent thirteen months in prison during World War II. Powers was the author of three collections of short stories and two novels—Morte D’Urban, which won the National Book Award, andWheat That Springeth Green—all of which have been reissued by New York Review Books. He lived in Ireland and the United States and taught for many years at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Denis Donoghue is University Professor at NYU, where he holds the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters. He is the author of The Practice of Reading, Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot, and, most recently, The American Classics. (October 2006)

Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (March 31, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940322226
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322226
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #468,104 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
These wonderful stories mine the whole of American life, but Powers was at his best when he wrote about the very narrow slice of life that confines, constricts and defines the lives of Catholic priests. The comedy inherent in parish and church politics, the worldliness of men who have supposedly dedicated their lives to God, the loneliness of other men who have discovered that God is absent from most of their daily routine---these are Powers' favorite subjects, and in exploring them he produced some of the saddest and funniest stories to be found outside of Joyce's "Dubliners."
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In a world where bestselling authors Joe Queenan, P.J. O'Rourke, Dave Barry, Christopher Buckley, and (God-forgive-me) Al Franken are hailed as leading humorists, there are three giants of American humor that are criminally underappreciated: Florence King, Jim Goad, and the late James Farl Powers. While King and Goad follow in the Rabelasian tradition of the better known humorists listed above, J.F. Powers wrote in a deep and subtle field of allusion and irony. His humor is poignant and instructive in a way that is both profoundly human, yet open to the face of the divine.

The stories collected here also include Powers's tragic pieces, as well as other sketches and thinly disguised passages of his own family life. These are exemplary works, and perhaps the best examples of American writing ever produced, for Powers has often been called "the writer's writer" for the craft and care with which he chooses words.

Attention has been paid to the fact that Powers was a Catholic writer, and there have been critics who strain to invoke comparison with Flannery O'Connor. For me the only points of tangency are that they were Catholics, were writers, wrote about humor and irony, but that is about it. Their voices create entirely different worlds, and their characters are hewn from different rock, and their anima sprouted from different soil.

Powers is a distinctly different writer, speaking from a different landscape and with a plainness of style that invokes the Midwest and invites comparison with Willa Cather. But as William Faulkner said and wrote, Powers's subjects are circumscribed by "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing."

And so we return to Powers's comedy.
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Format: Paperback
I have reviewed on Amazon the earlier collections in their original format, "Prince of Darkness" (1947) and "Presence of Grace," (1956) as well as the novel "Morte d'Urban" (1962). The collected three thin volumes, thirty stories total, are reprinted as "The Stories of J.F. Powers" in 2001 from NY Review Press, as well as reissues of the two novels. As another reviewer on Amazon here noted, I too prefer the original volumes, but the fact that NY Review Press has reprinted the five books (the two novels and this anthology) in handsome editions after Powers (1917-99) languished as a cult favorite and, curse and blessing for him, status as a "writer's writer" who took years to create, it seems, a single story, judging from over forty years and the small shelf of five thin books as originally printed 1947-88.

Denis Donaghue provides an efficient introduction to this rather prickly author, whose moral backbone, no-nonsense manner, and ear for the telling phrase and the revealing pause made him one of America's most talented recorders of fictional priests, laity, and in two great stories a cat as the narrator of Midwestern foibles, dreamers, and ordinary folks, whether in rectories or social halls. His best stories do involve the clergy, as any reader of Powers will recognize, but these at their best emerge more vividly when included among the lesser attempts at themes such as baseball, the space race, race relations, wife-swapping, and a chillingly rendered Welcome Wagon lady.

Powers took his good time writing these stories, so take yours reading them. If you would like more advice on each of the thirty, take a look at my reviews of "Prince," "Presence," and "Look." There, I briefly comment upon each story in the order they were originally printed.
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Format: Paperback
I'll open my review by saying that I came to this collection of stories after reading Power's two novels in the NYRB series, _Morte D'Urban_ and _ Wheat that Springeth Green_, and I had no previous experience of his short stories. So I can't add anything to some of the reviewers' comments on previous editions being better.

I will say that I found the short stories to have a different feel to them than his longer works - there is much more tension in them and less of the understated humor. It wasn't a book where I could read one story after another; I usually needed a break between each one to just mull it over.

Many of the stories concern Catholic priests in some American situation and have the feel of the '50s and '60s. I think Powers chose priests to write about so much because they represented a man stripped of a number of encumbrances - family, owning a home, business responsibilities - and so freed him to write about more elemental themes. Many of these themes aren't particularly noble or exalted; spirituality rarely lifts its head. Hierarchy and bureaucracy are the background for many of the pieces. Parishioners have a minor role, usually as one more responsibility to get through in the day. Men come out of the seminary full of energy and ideals and ambition and slowly become the senior old grouch bedeviling a new generation of energetic idealists.

The baggage today around clergy, especially Catholic clergy, is so very different that the stories seem to almost be from another time, and I have to wonder that his priests seem to never regret their decisions to forgo women, family and a choice of home life, but it isn't a huge issue in the enjoyment of his work.
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