Look How the Fish Live by J.F. Powers, the Poet of Frustration

Look How The Fish Live by J.F. PowersThe 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.
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JF Powers’ Morte d’Urban: On the Priesthood of American Literary Writers

Most reviews of  J.F. Powers’ 1962 comic masterpiece Morte d’Urban (especially most reviews in elite venues) see the central story as that of a wheeler-dealer priest who dies to earthly life to achieve a greater sanctity. And that assessment is pretty hard to argue with—since the hero of the novel is a priest, and the writer himself was Catholic, the novel has to be about the importance of the spiritual life over worldly success, right?

Wrong. As always, it’s convenient for the elite to assure the poor and frustrated that they will find their reward in heaven, so they don’t have to be given a cut here on earth. But the problem with this take on the story of Father Urban is that this is not how it will feel to any non-elite reading it. The way it feels to me as I read most of it is hilarious and exhilarating; the way it felt as I finished it was heartbreaking. What makes it sad is that it’s the story of a great man who’s destroyed by the yahoos. Continue reading JF Powers’ Morte d’Urban: On the Priesthood of American Literary Writers