The most haunting story in Look How the Fish Live, a collection of short stories by J.F. Powers published in 1975, is the eponymous story that opens it, “Look How the Fish Live,” a story about the indifference of the universe. Every time I read it I think of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” although the stories could not be more different on the surface. The story was in the first book Powers published after his masterpiece, the novel Morte D’Urban (see review), with which Powers beat out Nabokov, Updike and Katherine Anne Porter for the 1963 National Book Award. “Look How the Fish Live” is now available in The Stories of J.F. Powers.
If you haven’t read Powers because his stories and novels are mainly about Catholic priests, and you’re not Catholic, please be aware that you would have driven Powers crazy. “Would you say that The Wind in the Willows is a book for animals?” he once asked a critic who had labeled him as a writer for Catholics.
You don’t have to be religious to understand and enjoy Powers’ stories because they’re not about God or religion or Catholicism or any of that. They’re about frustration—with one’s fellow men, and with the entire order of the Universe.
“Look How the Fish Live” was written and set at a time when local authorities in the U.S. still prepared Civil Defense plans in case of atomic bomb attack, when air raid sirens and drills were still part of daily life. Powers gets to the bomb through a story about a young father whose children have found a baby bird in the yard that has fallen out of its nest. It’s not the first time something like this has happened in the yard—the family is living in a 100-year-old house on four city lots filled with big old trees and shrubs and an entire secret world of wildlife—“the fairies, who, the children told him, played there.” In the course of the story the father thinks of other birds who have died recently in the yard, and the children report that a baby bunny has gotten “pushed” by another animal—a weasel or cat—and has been crying like a human child.
Also weighing on the father’s mind is the impending demolition of the old house and trees, which are owned by the local university. The land is to be turned into a parking lot that winter. “Few of the birds would be there when it happened but the squirrels—there were at least a dozen in residence—were in for a terrible shock.”
Plus, the father has recently had the yard sprayed with DDT to get rid of an especially horrendous infestation of mosquitoes. Not only do there appear to be no worms in the yard to feed the little bird after the spraying, but he fears that the spraying might have knocked the little bird from its nest in the first place.
The children bring bits of bread to the bird, which it doesn’t eat, and water in a tin, which it doesn’t drink. They make a little grass nest for the bird, and put it and the bird into a dishpan, which they move around the yard for a few hours to keep it in the shade. The father goes to his office. When he comes home that afternoon and asks the kids how the bird is doing, they don’t know because they’ve been busy pasting. Powers writes, “It was a mystery to him how, after crooning over the helpless creature, after entangling him in its fate, they could be this way.”
The father takes over all the care of the baby bird. He’s heartened when he sees a mature dove on a branch overhead, then disappointed when it flies away. Part of what torments him is that the little bird seems to respond to his efforts. Nobody else has observed the bird drinking, but when he raises a little cup of water to its beak, it definitely drinks for him. The bird’s ability to make a decision for its own benefit heartens him. He feels the creature would survive if only its mother would come and care for it.
As the father goes back and forth doing what he can for the baby bird, he keeps trying to sort out who is at fault for its plight. First, he blames nature:
Here was a case that showed how incompetent nature really was. He was tired of such cases, of nature passing the buck to him.
Or is it his fault for spraying the DDT, and upsetting the delicate balance of nature?
That was the balance of nature for you. Balance for whom? You had to take steps yourself—drastic steps. Too drastic?
Or was it his children’s fault for entangling him in the fate of the baby bird? Or his wife’s fault for having the children?
Or was it God’s fault?
Who was left? God. It wasn’t surprising, for all problems were at bottom theological. He’d like to put a few questions to God. God, though, knowing his thoughts, knew his questions, and the world was already in possession of all the answers that would be forthcoming from God.”
Later he’s standing on the porch when he hears a racket out in the yard. It turns out to be birds squawking in alarm at a black and white cat. When he goes to the nest again, he finds it empty, thinks in horror of the cat, and sees the little bird a few feet away, dead—not mangled or half-eaten, but with blood all around it. He buries the bird in a mossy place near the wild ginger, “thinking the bird would rest easier there than in most ground.”
When neighbors come by a few minutes later to work out a neighborhood defense plan in case of atomic attack, he blurts out: “I’m sick of it all.” The talk turns to the impending demolition. He looks at a dorm (in a style he calls “Blank”) that’s been built across the street on the site of another old house that was torn down and says, “There’s no defense against that either.”
At the very end of the story, the civil defense coordinator and other neighbors leave, and the father puts a large stone on the bird’s grave to protect it from the cat. Then Powers gives us these closing lines:
It was getting dark in the yard, the night coming sooner there because of the great trees. Now the bats and owls would get to work, he thought, and went into the doomed house.
It’s one form of doom or another, and an overwhelmed Caretaker who’s gone numb.
Powers was well-known for the care he took with his writing—he said he seldom completed more than a page a day, and the Irish writer Sean O’Faolain (a friend of Powers’) joked that Powers took a full morning to put in a comma, and a full afternoon to replace it with a semi-colon.
But what Powers got out of that care was incredible depth beneath a top layer of supreme simplicity.
The Stories of J.F. Powers