Reviews — From the September 2013 issue

Bartleby on the Prairie

The unspent life of J. F. Powers

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Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963, edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 480 pages. $35.

J. F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests,” the New York Times headlined its obituary in 1999. It was a bluntly chiseled epitaph for a writer who (to judge from the obit alone) had had a brilliant career. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1917, Powers began writing stories in Chicago in his early twenties; a book of them, Prince of Darkness, was published in 1947, just as he turned thirty. Powers was rooted in the Midwest, but he went twice to Yaddo and made friends with Robert Lowell and Katherine Anne Porter. He was a master of the short story, but his first novel, Morte D’Urban, the tale of a wily priest on the make, won the National Book Award in 1963, besting Porter’s Ship of Fools, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Updike’s Pigeon Feathers. A realist and a miniaturist, he was praised by the maximalist William H. Gass in a Nation review entitled “The Bingo Game at the Foot of the Cross.” Alfred Kazin likened Powers’s style to the “scrupulous meanness” of James Joyce:

When you take on a Powers story, you find yourself working hard from line to line, and constantly being outguessed. Nevertheless, the point is usually the same: the world falls at the feet of the spirit.

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, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a group portrait of four American Catholic writers. His most recent book is Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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