I was actually reading one of J. F. Powers’s books when I heard the news of his death in June. I imagine there are very few people who can make the same claim: Powers’s modest body of work (two novels, three short-story collections) has been out of print for years. But for a chance encounter, I doubt that I would ever have read Powers’s work at all.

For one thing I am English, with the Englishman’s ignorance of American literature—an ignorance I feel properly guilty about when among literary folk, but to the relief of which I am hindered by some strong inward resistance. The United States is supposed by foreigners, very unfairly, to be a place where people read not for pleasure but for moral instruction, not to amuse themselves but to improve themselves. The rigors of an English childhood leave us smug in the conviction that we are either above or below the possibility of improvement and are ther ...