‘A Losing Game’ by J.F. Powers


A Losing Game by J.F. Powers, 1955

The magic trick:

Focusing on what would seem to be a very petty conflict, allowing the reader space to fill in whatever we want under the plot’s surface

Don’t let the word ‘game’ in the title throw you. If you’re thinking fun or even interesting, you will be disappointed. The game in this story is played between two priests, and the stakes are bedroom furniture.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story that centered on so little. And yet…

It is interesting, somehow. There is so much boiling under the surface. Yes it is true that the main conflict centers around one priest’s desire to have a table for his typewriter. But it’s much more than that. There is a sense of evil behind these two men’s power play.

Maybe I’m imagining it. But maybe that’s the magic trick. By not ever mentioning anything except the literal situation at hand, Powers allows the reader space to imagine whatever it is we want at work behind the scenes. I brought danger and evil to a story about furniture. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. And that’s quite a trick on Powers’s part.

The selection:

The pastor started to close the door, which would have been according to the rules of their little game, but Father Fabre didn’t budge, which was not according to the rules.

“Tell you what I’ll do, Father,” he said. “I’ll just look around in the basement, and you won’t have to bother. I know how busy you are.” Father Fabre had a strange feeling that he was getting somewhere with the pastor. What he’d said so far had been right, but he had to keep it up. “Of course I’ll need to know the combination.”

He saw the pastor buck and shudder at the idea of telling anyone the combination of the lock that preserved his treasures. “Better go with you,” the pastor said, feeling his throat.

Father Fabre nodded. This is what he’d had in mind all the time.

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