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Book facts
The Encounter
by Crawford Power
(Overlook)
320 pages
Paperback, $16.95

Spiritual rebirth a Catholic noir tale

First published in 1950, “The Encounter” is, curiously enough, Crawford Power’s only published work – and a great one. 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.

At the rectory, Father Cawder’s principled cheerlessness reigns. He has no interest in social justice; it’s a contradiction in terms, for the world and human society are inherently foul and wicked. Priests like Father Cawder, a theological killjoy, probably do not exist anymore.

Father Cawder 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. The couple dismay the priest in their abandonment to the flesh. 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.

The novel’s atmosphere is Catholic noir: Faithlessness, betrayal, loneliness and cheap solace pervade this world. 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: “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 almost phantasmagorically vivid. 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. 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 becomes, thanks to Power’s stealthy construction of character, an object of our sympathy, even respect. And that approaches a miracle.

Katherine A. 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.” She wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.

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