Wednesday, August 21, 2013

J. F. Powers and Elmore Leonard

My review of Katherine A. Powers’s edition of her father’s letters, Suitable Accommodations, appeared yesterday—publication day for the book—in the Daily Beast. The book’s publication was overshadowed by the death, earlier in the day, of the crime novelist Elmore Leonard. The Beast itself carried no fewer than three stories relating to Leonard.

Overshadowed by other writers so often during his lifetime, Powers would have had something ironic and painful to say on the subject. Maybe there was a historical lesson in the coincidence, though. Leonard was convinced that at least some of his fiction would last. How long, he didn’t say. But as for Powers: “His style is superb and his characterization sublime,” the novelist Mary Gordon, an admirer, told Portland magazine, “but it’s sad because I don’t think he’ll be remembered.”

Predictions of literary immortality are a fool’s game. Let’s assume, though, that Leonard and Gordon are both right—Leonard will be remembered, while Powers will be forgotten. The former is customarily (and lazily) described as a “genre” writer; the latter is a “literary” writer. In other words, they differed mainly in their subject matter. Leonard wrote about criminals; Powers, about Catholic priests. It’s a safe bet, then, that readers of the future will prefer criminals to priests? Or is Powers’s handicap, as Joseph Bottum said in First Things, that the “catastrophic collapse of religious vocations through the 1970s” robbed Powers’s subject of its immediacy? Priests will no longer interest readers in the future, because readers will no longer be interested in the religious problems of priests—or religious problems of any kind, for that matter. But the criminals you always have with you.

To a critical eye, however, the most obvious difference between them lies elsewhere. Leonard was eight years younger, and Powers got a six-year head start, but Leonard soon outdistanced him, publishing forty-three novels in his lifetime, plus many short stories, while Powers was lucky, as I said in my review of Suitable Accommodations, to average 6,000 words a year. Although Leonard is much admired for the quality of his writing (especially his dialogue), the raw truth is that his prose is much rougher, far less careful, far less polished, than Powers’s. Leonard depends upon narrative effects, which is why so many of his novels and stories have been turned quickly and painlessly into films, while Powers depends upon the barely audible clicking of sentences.

Here, for example, is a passage, conveniently reproduced by NPR, from Leonard’s novel Road Dogs. Notice, first, how three of the first four paragraphs begin with the third-person plural personal pronoun. While the first two refer to a hidden “they,” however (the authorities, presumably), the third refers to the inmates. The shift is handled awkwardly. (The defect mars the fifth paragraph too, which is otherwise a sharp descriptive paragraph.)

The eleventh paragraph, which violates Leonard’s own rule against using patois, is free indirect discourse or even stream of consciousness, attempting to reproduce Foley’s thoughts as he eats. At the same time, Leonard tries to use the paragraph to fill in Foley’s backstory. The result is clumsy and unconvincing. After he finishes eating, Foley is confronted by the Cuban whom he had defended against the white supremicists. Foley takes his measure: “This little bit of a guy acting tough.” There is nothing about the sentence that isn’t the recitation of a formula.

Here, by contrast, selected more or less at random, is a passage from Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers’s last novel:       Joe ran back to the stand, holding the saucers and spoons so they wouldn’t rattle. Father Stock unwrapped them, stuck the napkin in his hip pocket, motioned Sister Agatha and Sister Margaret up to the stand, and said to one of the women behind the counter, “Double dips for the Sisters. No charge.”
       Joe moved away from the stand, away from an old smelly man who looked like a tramp and said to the woman who’d handed him a cone, “No charge.” A joke?
       “Pay, Father,” the woman said.
       The old man licked the cone.
       “Father,” the woman said.
       Father Stock said, “Five cents, mister.”
       The old man licked the cone. “Try and git it.”
       Joe was astonished to see Father Stock lie across the counter and, like a swimmer doing the breast stroke, swat the cone to the ground, the ice cream, only one dip, coming out of the cone and settling in the grass.
What should immediately strike you is the greater specificity, the heightened exactness, of Powers’s prose. While Leonard relies primarily upon nouns to do his stylistic work, Powers is ambidextrous with nouns and verbs. Although Leonard has the reputation for fiction with plenty of action, it is Powers’s scene in which, less menacing as it might be, the action is tightly focused: rattle, unwrap, stick, motion, lick, swat, settle. Both writers characterize an entire history of human relationships in a few paragraphs, but Powers does so with greater economy and precision.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that his perfectionism (his own word) makes Powers the better writer. Quite the opposite. I am beginning to wonder if the obsession with specificity and exactness, with perfecting a verbal surface, was not simply a fashion which has passed from the literary scene, and not an article of artistic faith at all. If Powers will not be remembered perhaps the reason is that his principle of style, like a green felt hat trimmed with sequins and gold braid and covered with a black lace veil, belongs to a past that is irrecoverably past. Call it the Age of Finish, a closed chapter of literary history. And Leonard, if he is remembered, will be remembered by an age that is not so fussy with its words.

Update, 8/22/13: After writing the above, I received a warm note from Katherine A. Powers. She includes, as usual for her, some striking literary observations, which she has kindly given me permission to quote. She writes: “JFP had a genius for the mot juste and for causing the words he chose to resonate ineffably with a mood or character or situation that I think goes beyond perfecting a verbal surface, that exactness and specificity, though it most certainly includes them. I read my mother’s attempts to write exactly like that passage, to capture every little move and find a simile that adds something slightly comic—and she does, sort of, but the result lacks a sense of ease (and I feel bad saying it). You could date her work almost precisely as belonging to 1940s and 50s, even though her novel was finally published in 1969—I mean belonging in the sense that that is when her literary sensibility and ambition were formed in all its Pride.”

Betty Wahl’s novel Rafferty & Co. was issued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In her Afterword to Suitable Accommodations, Katherine A. Powers describes the novel as being “based in a gentle way, far too gentle, I would say, on life in Ireland with a man something like [J. F. Powers].” Betty Wahl died in 1988, eleven years before her husband.


obat kanker payudara herbal said...

This morning is really cool to read and read, thank you for this useful article