First published in 1950, “The Encounter” is, curiously enough, Crawford Power’s only published work — and a great one. It is set in what seems to be the 1930s, a world as distant, culturally and spiritually, from ours as that of the Middle Ages. It is the story of a Catholic priest and his struggle with his own ascetic, humanity-abhorring soul. This is Father Cawder, the pastor of a comfortable little parish in Maryland, whom we first meet taking tea in the drawing room of Mrs. Girard, a well-heeled lady of the parish. Throughout the visit, he radiates disgust with his hostess’s easeful surroundings, refuses food and rejects, witheringly, the woman’s offer to pay for cushions to go on the church’s punitively hard kneelers. “It seems to me the Church ought to keep clear of this cult of comfort. Christians are getting very soft, Mrs. Girard.” He departs leaving her feeling that her pleasure in beauty was “a mortifying lust.”
Back at the rectory, Father Cawder’s principled cheerlessness reigns: He rebuffs his lonely assistant Father Moran’s attempts at camaraderie and nixes his plans for charitable social programs. He considers the young man a “materialist . . . busy with corruptible matter.” He himself has no interest in social justice; it’s a contradiction in terms, for the world and human society are inherently foul and wicked, a realm of “nothingness.” Priests like Father Cawder, a theological killjoy of the Jansenist stripe, probably do not exist anymore.
Firm in his views though he may be, and as comfortless in his life as he can arrange, Father Cawder is not at peace. He has had a strange dream and has spotted a figure from it on a circus flier, a performer called Diamond. The priest can’t shake the idea that his own destiny, even identity, is tied up with this character, “a small-time, ex-vaudeville end man, a cat-house jazzer, a carnival tramp.” He tracks Diamond down to where he lives with his girlfriend, Stella, a tawdry, painted young woman. The couple dismay the priest in their abandonment to the flesh, the damned, “blind dance of matter.” Still, showing a momentary spark of conscience, Stella reveals that she has billeted her 6-year-old daughter with a friend and asks Father Cawder to find the girl a better home. Then Stella and Diamond disappear, and Father Cawder seeks them, first in the stews of Trenton, later from a blighted perch in a dying parish in the mean streets of Philadelphia to which he has been demoted.
The novel’s atmosphere is Catholic noir: Faithlessness, betrayal, loneliness and cheap solace pervade this world of drifters, roadhouses, seedy lodgings, burlesque theaters, chophouses and brothels. In Father Cawder’s terms, it is the grotesque realm of unredeemed flesh, and Power brilliantly conveys the priest’s bone-deep queasiness as he passes through the streets looking for Diamond: “He saw the cheeks of sauntering or rushing people turn orange as they passed under neon signs. He looked into an immense cafeteria lined with white tiles. Within . . . a hundred backs were visible, solemn musing faces intent with greediness or vacuity over their platters. With silent working jaws they had nothing to say to one another, nursing their grievances, savoring the pleasure of meat and grease mixing with the juices of their mouths.”
The novel’s plot amounts to a linked series of tribulations — or stations, as it might be — each one picked out in fine detail and almost phantasmagorically vivid. Taken together, they make up a terrifying spiritual journey, at whose end is Father Cawder’s recognition of his own spiritual dysfunction.
In our eyes, Father Cawder seems psychologically damaged, a victim of low self-esteem. In the framework of this novel, however, the theological and the psychological are coupled with great subtlety. In the end, the man whom we despised so thoroughly for the first part of the novel, becomes, thanks to Power’s stealthy construction of character, an object of our sympathy, even respect. And that approaches a miracle.
Powers is a critic living in Cambridge, Mass., and editor of the forthcoming “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers.”
By Crawford Power
Overlook. 320 pp. Paperback, $16.95