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.
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.