Politics Magazine

The Albigensian Heresy

Posted on the 16 March 2015 by Erictheblue

Writing to a friend, Flannery O'Connor said, of the short fiction of J.F. Powers:

[His] stories can be divided into two kinds--those that deal with the Catholic clergy and those that don't.  Those that deal with the clergy are as good as any stories being written by anybody; those that don't are not so good.

I think I've read enough of them now to concur, but the ones not about the clergy are still a good advertisement for Powers the man.  You can see, for example, that he was a baseball fan, and no complete son of a bitch ever loved baseball.  In his first collection, The Prince of Darkness, three (of eleven) stories are on the subject of race, and Powers's condemnation of bigotry sometimes is so strong that you feel he is losing artistic control.  We should remember that this book was published in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line.  Powers wasn't the type who chose a side only after counting up the company he'd have.

It is, however, the stories about priests that are indeed of the greatest interest.  I think my favorite is called "The Forks."  Here is the swift, vivid opening:

That summer when Father Eudex got back from saying Mass at the orphanage in the morning, he would park Monsignor's car, which was long and black and new like a politician's, and sit down in the cool of the porch to read his office.  If Monsignor was not already standing in the door, he would immediately appear there, seeing that his car had safely returned, and inquire:

"Did you have any trouble with her?"

So, two characters, Monsignor and his assistant, Eudex.  Monsignor has a car, Eudex does not.  The car is the subject of three adjectives ("long," "black," "new") and a simile ("like a politician's").  Eudex borrows the car to drive out to the orphanage to say Mass.  While he's away, Monsignor is back at the rectory, idle unless you count worrying about the possibility that something ill will befall his automobile.   But I'm the one who just said what Monsignor is doing and worrying.  Powers doesn't quite say it.  He just makes you see it's true.  Maybe that is what keeps the sharp criticism from seeming shrill or pious.

Eudex can't stand Monsignor, and he's right to feel that way, for Monsignor is a conservative, pompous ass.  Of course, he is also Eudex's boss, so in their conversations the younger man does not give full voice to his opinions.  For that, he dislikes himself, and his ability to experience this form of dissatisfaction is another difference between them.  Monsignor blandly advances his opinions and in a pinch falls back on Latin and polysyllables.  Has Eudex never heard of the Albigensian heresy?  Near the end, Monsignor is resting upstairs when a parishioner comes to seek counsel.  She's a business owner and wants to know what to do with her money.  Eudex advises that she give to the poor, which causes her to recoil. 

"'Well!'" she says.  "'You are a funny one!'"  Eudex realizes that she had been expecting to receive a stock tip.  He advises her to come back in the evening and "speak to the pastor."  When she's left, Eudex, returning to his room, hears Monsignor calling to him from upstairs, asking who had been there.  He replies, "A woman seeking good counsel, " and waits for the follow-up questions, but "there came only a sigh and a shifting of weight that told Father Eudex he was simply turning over in bed."

That someone should call on a priest and expect to receive a stock tip is not regarded as odd.  Come back later, when Monsignor is up from his nap.  You can then avoid altogether having to speak with "the funny one."


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