‘God Writes A Bad Hand’ by J.F. Powers

God Writes A Bad Hand by J.F. Powers, 1960

The magic trick:

A comic story that turns tense and melancholy as a friendship frays

J.F. Powers often pits his priests against one another in battles of bureaucracy, where the actions are petty but the motivating passions feel like pure vitriol.

And “God Writes A Bad Hand” falls in line with that familiar template – it literally falls in the middle of the Morte d’Urban novel tracking Father Urban’s spiritual journey from Chicago to Minnesota.

Geographically, this story takes us into Wisconsin for a weekend fishing trip. Figuratively, we’re entering into a crisis moment for Father Urban’s friendship with Billy. If you’ve read the novel or the previous Father Urban short stories in the cycle, you know that it was always tenuous at best; the source of equal parts pride, guilt and stress for Father Urban.

Here, the fishing weekend proves calamitous, and the story becomes a surprisingly melancholy portrait of a fraying, toxic relationship.

And that’s quite a trick on Powers’s part.

The selection:

Father Urban finished his drink and declined another. He waited a moment, and then excused himself, saying he was tired. Billy didn’t take this very well. He expected a piano to be delivered that night, and presumably thought that Father Urban should be willing to wait up for it.

“I’ve had a long day, Billy,” Father Urban said.

“We’ve all had a long day.”

“The truth is I have some office to read.”

Billy’s face softened up entirely. “That’s different,” he said.

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