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What Came in the Mail

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It’s been awhile since I’ve held a paperback that exudes this particular mid-1960s bouquet.  The last one I can recall that gave off this distinctive compact pulpish effervescence was my first copy of The Last Gentleman, published in 1966 and purchased by me in a used bookstore in Walla Walla, WA in 1986.  There was a near-pornographic image of a woman doing some sort of postmodern dance of the seven veils on the cover and in the air the smell of acidic pages destined to crumble as the 20th Century unwound. Now I turn to McLuhan for help in healing that wound Percy put his finger on, or at least in furthering the diagnosis.

Look what came in the mail…

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Long awaited (at least by me) – Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963. 

It’s been edited  by the author’s daughter Katherine A. Powers, and an uncorrected proof copy was sent to me, unsolicited. They must think I’m some sort of Powers scholar – and given half a chance I would be…

Already dipped into the thing – and lots of gems in the introduction by Ms. Powers:

“Well before the publication of his first novel Morte D’Urban in 1962, my father…planed to write a novel about ‘family life,’ an intention that persisted for the rest of his life. … The man falls in love, gets married, has numerous children – but has neither money nor home. He finds no pleasant ease and little of the fellowship of like minds he associated with the literary life [he didn’t have Korrektiv] he had thought was to be his own. The novel would be called Flesh, a word infused with Jansenist distaste, conveying a bleak comedy and terrible bathos of high aesthetic and spiritual aspiration in hopeless contest with human needs and material necessity.”

“The letters that make up this story begin with Him at age twenty-five and the acceptance for publication of his first short story. They then leap forward to letters from prison [where Powers, a pacifist, served time as a conscientious objector during WWII] and on through those recording high hopes, great promise, and a passionate courtship and marriage to Betty Wahl. Then comes the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity. Central to this progression is the matter of where and how to live. Jim’s married life was dominated by the search for ‘suitable accommodations,’ for a house that would reflect and foster the high calling of the artist. In the course of their married life… the couple moved more than twenty times.”

And one more:

“In his letters to his friends…He often adopted a tone of macabre relish for the hopelessness of his situation: the absence of a house, the presence of many children and a desperate wife, the amount of time he had spent on the mechanics of life, the piddling nature of his daily doings, and his longing for and lack of camaraderie.

“‘We have her no lasting home’ was his constant refrain, drawing, with feigned smugness, on Christian teaching… In any case, the phrase always had the torque of a joke, for the Powerses were forever on the move, leaving some houses out of the urge to quit the country (whichever one it happened to be at the time [America or Ireland]), laving other houses because they were taken by eminent domain or sold out from under them. But Jim also meant the statement as a summary of his essential belief: that life on earth doesn’t make sense and that when you understood that, you understood reality. Still, for a person who held that the world is an obstacle-strewn journey toward one’s proper home (heaven), he was more than ordinarily affronted by hardship and adversity, to say nothing of mediocrity and dullness. He was no stoic, and he took it all personally.”

Then Ms. powers quotes one of her father’s 1979 letter to her, who was “then thirty-one and living, as were his other children, far away: ‘You referred to [Powers’ son] Boz’s plan for me to make a lot of money so we can move back to Ireland. He may be right. I see it as idealism, but what else would work for our family? A big house not too far from Dublin, [daughter] Jane weaving and dyeing in one room, [son]Hugh philosophizing and botanizing in another, Boz and family in one wing, [daughter] Mary etching in one tower, Katherine reading in another, Mama in the garden, Daddy with The Irish Times and The Daily Telegraph in his study.’

“To which scheme I say to myself now, as I did then: Oh, dear.”

 

What Came in the Mail

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What Came in the Mail

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What Came in the Mail

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Of course, I’ll be reading it on the Kindle, though.

Look What Came in the Mail

JOB held this contest, see, and then he sent out prizes, including a sweet little copy of Updike’s Endpoint for moi, see.