The Green Banana by J.F. Powers, 1955
The magic trick:
Huge problems, tiny conflicts
This story has an odd personal history with me. I’m not sure it’s of much interest to you, but I will tell you about it anyway.
I started reading this story in November of 2019, and not coincidentally so began my longest SSMT fallow period in the five years since I’d started the website. I don’t know what it was about this story’s opening, I just couldn’t crack it. I probably read the first two pages five different times. Always lost interest. Put it down for long enough that when I finally went to pick it up, I’d have to start over because I had no memory of what was happening. I went about four months without reading a short story.
Then COVID-19 arrived in the United States.
Like everyone, I went looking for distraction. Books. Short stories. Where did I leave off? Oh, right, that damn green banana.
Not one to leave a half-read story half-read, I dutifully returned to J.F. Powers’s insular world of priests and petty battles. And wouldn’t you know, what previously struck me as painfully boring now was the perfect pandemic antidote.
The world Powers creates is an odd one – part comedy, part religious crisis. The problems are enormous, but the conflicts are tiny. Here, concerns include having to feign amusement at the chauffeur’s dumb jokes, frustrations with a poorly executed pamphlet marketing the church, and a power play centering on a priest who does not feel properly appreciated for all the public relations he does for his Order.
This story also introduces us to the wonderful character of Father Urban, and in fact serves as the (slightly modified) beginning of Powers’s acclaimed novel, Morte de’Urban. The novel works great as a series of short stories, and to my great surprise, they’ve become my go-to coronavirus distraction.
And that’s quite a trick on Powers’s part.
A few doors down from Billy’s building, there was a parking place, but Father Urban was firm about being let out in the street. He was afraid that Paul, if he got the car parked, would want to tell how he’d felt on first seeing the firetrap once occupied by the Clementines. Billy, who had taken them away from all that, liked to hear Paul tell it. “In there?” Paul had said to himself when he saw the building, and “In that?” when he saw the old bird-cage elevator, and “Down there?” when he saw the dim corridor at the end of which the Clementines had their offices, next to a distributor of barbers’ supplies. Father Urban hadn’t minded hearing it the first couple of times but would hold still for it now only if Billy was present. Father Boniface, along on one such occasion, had left right away, which certainly must have looked like ingratitude to Billy.
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I haven’t read this one, but now I want to. The Powers stories I’ve read all seem to sneak up on you.