August 6, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service considers the work of a Midwestern writer.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: When he died a few weeks ago at the age of 81, J.F. Powers, one of our best American writers, was little read. His collections of short stories and his novels had gone out of print. Maybe it was because he wrote mainly about Roman Catholic priests, and wrote so often sardonically, that his books seemed foreign to many readers, but truly here was an American writer. He was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, an Irish Catholic in the American Midwest-- not a landscape for sentimentalists, in any case. It's no coincidence, I think, that so many of our best comic writers come from that flat land of hard winters and of bank foreclosures which follow lean harvests. The Midwest of J.F. Powers lies somewhere between the small towns of Garrison Keillor and the cities of Sinclair Lewis. Powers wrote with compassion, but as a satirist, so do not expect from him Roman Catholic priests like Bing Crosby or nuns like Ingrid Bergman. In Powers' best novel, "Morte D'Urban," the Babbitt-like pastor is ambitious to convert a disused retreat center into a golf course. As a Catholic, it was what I trusted about Powers' humor. I always expect priests to be like the rest of us in the pews. Maybe it's because priests themselves teach us that sin, whatever its form, is universal, because we are all, after all, human.
PEOPLE SINGING: Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The best Catholic novels about priests always make
the same point. Graham Greene wrote in "The Power and the Glory"
about a priest in Mexico who is a drunk. In France, Georges Bernanos'
"Diary of a Country Priest" is about a priest who astonishes us
mainly because he is so plain. In the fiction of J.F. Powers, the old
priest is annoyed by the pious seminarian, the nuns over in their convent
are angry at the pastor for some bullying offense or other. In my own
non-fictional life, the priests I have known best, have loved, have
been in the end fully recognizable human beings. Often they become first-name
priests to their congregations, not Father William Logar or Father Edmund
O'Neil, but Father Bill or Father Ed, both men now dead. J.F. Powers
never forgot the humor inherent in the lives of those who had dedicated
their lives to God's service. That priest at the intersection in his
bright Chevrolet might be off to anoint a dying body or to play a round
of golf. Earlier this summer, just a day after J.F. Powers died, the
most famous priest in the world, the Pope, was photographed weeping
as he left his beloved Poland. The old man wept like a kid, wept for
all that we must lose in a life-- our parents, the house we knew as
children, our youth. How well J.F. Powers would have understood why
even the Pope must weep. In the last decades of his life, J.F. Powers,
the writer, turned silent. His wife's declining health distracted him
from his work, and laziness, he said. And then, when his books went
out of print, the disappointment must have stung this most elegant of
American satirists. He died, like most priests die, admired by a small
number, those focus who will forever marvel that a man could wonder,
so long and without flinching, could wonder what it might mean to serve
God while living in the American heartland.