The Clock at the Biltmore — J. F. Powers: “Death of a Favorite”

J.F. Powers is one author who frequently is called “criminally neglected.”  I am definitely guilty of that neglect, but here is the beginning of my repentance process — and what a bizarre story to repent with!  I didn’t know this, but J.F. Powers wrote many stories about priests.  It was when I was looking in the archives of The New Yorker, where he published just over a dozen, that I saw this fact in the stories’ abstracts.  I decided to start with his first New Yorker story, “Death of a Favorite,” published July 1, 1950.

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If you’ve read this story, you will understand my confusion upon reading the first line of this story about Catholic priests.  If you haven’t read the story, here it is:

I had spent most of the afternoon mousing — a matter of sport with me and certainly not of diet — in the sunburnt fields that begin at our back door and continue hundreds of miles into the Dakotas.

I was thrilled.  Not only is the writing great, but realizing that this story was going to be told by a cat . . .

That cat is Fritz.  For years he has been the favorite of Father Malt, a leading priest in the parish.  “Favorite” is not limited to “favorite cat.”  It is apparent to all that Fritz is Father Malt’s favorite companion, and Fritz enjoys certain benefits for this.

At least I was late late coming to dinner, and so my introduction to the two missionaries took place at table.  They were surprised, as most visitors are, to see me take the chair at Father Malt’s right.

This story was delightful.  Fritz is an exceptional narrator (this story alone suggests to me that Powers really is criminally neglected).  While showing us the petty struggles of these priests, Fritz gives us great descriptions of the parish and of its inhabitants.

As Father Malt was the heart, they were the substance of a parish that remained rural while becoming increasingly suburban.  They dressed up occasionally and dropped into St. Paul and Minneapolis, “the Cities,” as visiting firemen into Hell, though it would be difficult to imagine any other place as graceless and far-gone as our own hard little highway town — called Sherwood but about as Sylvan as a tennis court.

Of course, given the title, not all is going well for Fritz.  At that table where Fritz sits proudly next to his master, eating from the table, also sits Father Burner, a jealous priest.

My observations of humanity incline me to believe that one of us — Burner or I — must ultimately prevail over the other.  For myself, I should not fear if this were a battle to be won on the solid ground of Father Malt’s affections.  But the old man grows older, the grave beckons to him ahead, and with Burner pushing him from behind, how long can he last?  Which is to say: How long can I last?

Unfortunately for Fritz, Father Malt will be absent for three days, a Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, returning again on Tuesday morning (religious imagery or references are used throughout, though this is not your typical religious story).  In this time, Fritz discovers another enemy in the form of Father Philbert.  The two priests conspire to rid themselves of this cat.  Their plan is startlingly brutal: they will beat Fritz while holding a crucifix up to him.  When Father Malt returns, they will tell him the cat is possessed, proving their point when Fritz flees at the sight of the crucifx.

I had no appetite for the sparrows hopping from tree to tree above me, but there seemed no way to convince them of that.  Each one, so great is his vanity, thinks himself eminently edible.  Peace, peace, they cry, and there is no peace.

Definitely a classic story from a nearly forgotten author.  Fortunately, there is a limited but fruitful body of work awaiting.

5 thoughts on “The Clock at the Biltmore — J. F. Powers: “Death of a Favorite””

  1. John Self says:

    Very interested to read this, Trevor. As you probably know, Powers’ stories (and two of his novels, which also feature priests) have been reissued by NYRB Classics. I have the two novels, but haven’t read them yet. I picked them up, along with a volume of stories by VS Pritchett, after James Wood compared Richard Yates to them both in his review of Blake Bailey’s Yates biography:

    Bailey calls Yates a “great” writer, but he seems more often a beautiful minor craftsman. Bailey might have opened his lens a little wider: Yates can be placed in the company of VS Pritchett and above all in that of the American writer JF Powers – who, working in the same period as Yates, was, like him, a painstaking craftsman of the sentence, a fine short-story writer and novelist whose work is only just kept in print. (Bailey doesn’t mention either writer.) Yates lacks the comic delicacy of Pritchett or Powers, but like them he is a great writer of dialogue – “Nunnya goddamn business!” – who lets his unhappy dreamers and fantasists, in proper Chekhovian fashion, burst into little oral riots of spoiled eloquence. His prose, again like theirs, is calmly rich – a rationed lyricism, from which the reader never goes hungry, and is never overfed.

    Reading this again, and your review, has determined me to move the Powers and Pritchett up my TBR pile!

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks again for the thoughts here, John. I loved this story, and I did know that NYRB Classics had Powers’ novels and some of his short stories in print. I don’t have them yet, though, and strangely I’ve never ran into them in a bookstore. I look for them frequently, too. Looking forward to your thoughts!

  3. ruth hananel says:

    I happened to find the short story “Death of a Favorite” by J.F.Powers in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.After reading the story which narrator appears to be father’s Malt favorite cat, I started doubting if Powers meant it to be that way,the moment that Father Burner “addressed the young missionary “Ever read any books by this fella Koestler, Father?”…..Wrote a book–apologetics.” …….Good on jails and concentration camps. You’d think he was born in one if you ever read his books”(275). According to Power’s biography he was a conscientious objector during WWII, which resulted in a prison sentence. It might be far-fetched for me to think about the cat Fritz, being a transformation of Powers into a cat who bravely narrates Father Burner’s and Father Filbert’s almost inhuman cruelty with a helpless cat in the same way that human victims were being dealt in WWII by powerful people who performed just as well the same kind of inhuman cruelty. RH.

  4. Diana Newell says:

    The ironic tone of Felix, the cat, as he observes the character, actions, and thoughts of both Father Burner and the younger priest, their contempt for Father Malt as he ages, and their plans to take his place as he slips into his dotage, cruelly disposing of his cat “assistant” along the way is J.F. Powers’ exposure of the “godly” who instruct their parish members and embody Roman Catholicism and its teachings.
    Their ambition, cruelty, lack of empathy or love, their hypocrisy, deception, and toadying emerge as Father Burner jockeys for position with help from his co-priest, using the symbol of Christianity, the crucifix, as a tool of punishment as an alternative to simply killing off Felix.
    These men of the cloth are cruel, driven by ambition, and contempt for the weak, the old, and the favored. Like other men, they reveal the human condition, which, humorously, even a cat can detect and despise…The Church harbors men of frailty and sin.

  5. Trevor says:

    . . . is J.F. Powers’ exposure of the “godly” who instruct their parish members and embody Roman Catholicism and its teachings.

    Nah, Powers was Catholic and religious. He may not have believed that all priests were “godly,” but writing a story about that doesn’t mean he was making any universal statement. This is evident in his many writings about priests, which recognize a much larger spectrum of humanity in the priesthood than your comment suggests.

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