What insults my soul,” Zadie Smith confessed last year in The New York Review of Books, “is the idea—popular in the culture just now . . . that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.” The First Commandment of Fiction has mutated from “write what you know” to “stay in your lane.” But this rule is at odds with the essence of good fiction. Good fiction, Smith writes, has always “suspected that there is far more to people than what they choose to make manifest,” and has unflinchingly probed the “profound mystery of consciousness” with deep and human curiosity about “others.”
In his short story “The Trouble,” the American Catholic writer J. F. Powers (1917–1999) doesn’t observe the new First Commandment of Fiction. Rather, he weaves between black and white lanes. By imagining the particularities of a Catholic African-American family, he thereby makes tangible the universality of the faith. The story about separations of race reminds all readers of what Flannery O’Connor calls our “essential disfigurement.” At the same time, Powers eschews cheap platitudes about “unity” in order to dignify the particular sufferings of his fellow Catholics.
“The Trouble” depicts an urban race riot. The young narrator, a black Catholic child, watches the riot from the window of his apartment with his sister. They long to “see some whites get killed for a change.” But then the narrator’s mama, caught up in the mobs on her way home from work, is carried inside. One of her bones “had poked through the flesh . . . all bloody like a sharp stick, and something terrible was wrong with her chest.” “Old Gramma” mutters French prayers (“Mére du Christ, priez pour nous, Secours des chrétiens, priez”). When they bring Mama in, a bespectacled black man cites a poem by Catholic convert and former Marxist Claude McKay. “If we must die let it not be like hogs hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” he cries, rallying his race to organize and fight the thing to a finish.
As Mama lies dying, the narrator, still caught up in McKay’s call to “meet the common foe,” looks out the window and sees the sight they’ve all been waiting for—“a white man that was fixing himself to get nice and killed.” The young man, running with a bugle, is chased by “about a million coloreds.” But as the pale enemy comes closer, the narrator finds himself pulsing with prayers for the “fool white man with the bugle to get away.”
His “Old Gramma” ends up saving the bugler, sneaking him into their apartment. This gives the narrator “a funny idea”:
I told myself the trouble is that somebody gets cheated or insulted or killed and everybody else tries to make it come out even by cheating and insulting and killing the cheaters and the insulters and killers. Only they never do. I did not think they ever would.
Powers prevents the story from becoming a paltry parable. The white man, who says he hates to give the family “any trouble,” feigns innocence. He’d just been passing by, he says, when “a hundred nig—when he was attacked.” His cut-short racist rant is only part of the trouble. He also whitewashes what actually happened. As the narrator had noted from the window earlier, the bugler had been one of “three dozen whites” who were “chasing two coloreds” down the alleyway.
The white man hangs around the apartment with utter awkwardness, his shame on display. He looks funny to the narrator, who tells us that the only whites who came to see them were “the man for the rent” and Father Egan, their former priest. As Powers’s friend Evelyn Waugh wrote, in America black Catholics faced “sharper tests” than their white co-religionists, for the source of their persecution was not only Protestant prejudice but also “fellow-members in the Household of the Faith.” In “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” Waugh lauds the African-American faithful whose supernatural knowledge of their creed surpassed that of their hypocritical clergy: “Honour must never be neglected to those thousands of coloured Catholics who so accurately traced their Master’s roads amidst insults and injury.”
Powers plays with light and shade throughout “The Trouble.” Wounded Mama is “all bandaged up in white.” Grandma opens a brown bag when a pale priest comes to administer Last Rites: Inside the bag are “two white candles.” The priest plucks cotton out a little black bag and, dabbing it in the oil of unction, anoints bandaged Mama with the sign of the cross. The priest who prays over Mama is named Father Crowe—a painful allusion to the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. Powers paints in black and white in spite of—or because of—the fact that the white man with the bugle is “Catholic too.” Are the anti-fiction foes of Zadie Smith right? he seems to ask. Can we only know “people who are fundamentally like us”—and is race, in this case, more fundamental than faith?
On the surface the story seems to close without achieving reconciliation between the characters. Our narrator's father threatens to murder the white man if his wife dies, even though all present profess the bugler’s “innocence.” (“‘Just because I’m white?’” the man asks. “‘Just because you’re white; yeah,’” Daddy replies.) The white man, in turn, clings to the Catholic card, begging the cleric to accompany him through the mob outside. “You won’t be the first one to hide behind a Roman collar,” Father Crowe replies.
Only Gramma’s Catholic faith rises above the racial tensions, even if it doesn’t dispel them or offer easy answers. Just before Mama dies, Old Gramma “took down the picture of the Sacred Heart all bleeding” and set it beside the departing soul, where the candles made the “Sacred Heart, punctured by the wreath of thorns, look bloodier than ever.” Christ’s heart bleeds for Mama’s, bleeds a bright and unifying red.
Right after she receives extreme unction, Mama dies. Daddy’s final gesture mimics his son’s earlier attempt at forgiveness. Daddy shuffles “draggily” over to the departing white man and says, “in the stillest kind of whisper, ‘I wouldn’t touch you.’” But the end of “The Trouble” escapes sentimentality, just barely. Our narrator falls down breathless, overcome by the sufferings in spite of his Daddy’s hinted forgiveness and his mother’s reception of the sacraments.
Rather, Powers’s Catholic fiction passes through the particular into the universal. As Waugh once wrote, regardless of the differences between the world’s manifold cultures, “any altar boy” could tell you that “the ‘incantations’ of the Mass are identical whether in Guadalupe or Gethsemane, Ky.” Powers’s Catholic faith proclaims this. But to communicate this universality, he as a fictionist inhabits otherness, sinks into particularities—the indignities that we cannot all perfectly share. From within the story, with all the agonies only art can give us, he crafts the wounds that mar the body of Christ, but without a propagandistic moral. In “The Trouble,” the American Catholic writer refuses to stay in his lane, and it gets him into the kind of trouble without which it is difficult to live well.
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.
Photo by David Shankbone via Creative Commons. Image cropped.