Tuesday, August 21, 2007

J. F. Powers "Morte d'Urban": Review

Re-reading this novel, the winner of the National Book Award for 1962 and the author's first full-length fiction after his stories collected in "The Prince of Darkness" (1947) & "The Presence of Grace" (1956) after a few decades, many of its scenes remained vivid. The scotch-fueled reveries of a Father Urban, middle-aged preacher, about what he could if not should have been if he had drifted away from the faith and became an easygoing, silvertongued womanizer before settling down with one gal-- she who's trying to seduce him as he wanders into "what if" even as she waits on Belleisle, a little crenellated castle in the middle of a Minnesota lake. The struggle of a deer to avoid drowning at the hands of the priest's benefactor as he and the crony take an ill-fated canoe trip in search of fish. The endless conversations of his superior, Fr. Wilf, about how best to sand the shelves-- you go with the grain-- as the urbane sub-Fulton Sheen finds himself toiling at a new vocational calling at his third-rate Order of St. Clement's retreat house on truly a woebegone lake.

This droll tale, constructed out of short stories that Powers had been writing on as he created the Dioceses of Great Plains and its suitably downmarket dreadful neighboring see of Ostergothenberg, takes the pacing of his briefer narratives and generally sustains it for pages of effortless tragi-comic insight and deadpan commentary, filtered through a likable but slightly vainglorious success story in a religious community too good for him, or so he-- and we-- think. Critics have not always praised the deus ex machina (or bolus ex dei?) which brings Father Urban's apostolate at golf course and retreat house, visiting parish assistant and man-about-the Midwest for his Order to a jarring halt. The shift in the novel I find on perhaps my third reading of this novel appropriate, even if the coda remains rather too nuanced and low-key for full clarification of the novel's denouement.

Yet, this is Powers' intent. If "God writes straight with crooked lines," and if the Church's once-vaunted efficiency as a monolithical power "second only to Standard Oil" finds that the divine plan and the clerical bureaucracy will both recruit Fr. Urban for their own slightly opaque purposes that neither we nor literary critics nor the faithful can follow, so be it. The novel does show its scaffolding, and not all of it moves so smoothly. The Malory references and the whole Lancelot-Guinevere analogy appear strained and their incorporation may have come from shorter segments that Powers shoehorned into the larger framework at a oblique angle. I do sense that portions of the novel appear more polished than others, and one does read the whole with the suspicion that the stories were cobbled together and intervening sections had to be created to provide stepping stones from one narrative rock to another across a more fluid, less stable patch of multiple possibilities and competing directions for the author's quest.

But, the tonal adjustments add to the verisimilitude both of Fr. Urban's life and the craft of Powers, who must have worked a half-dozen years on this novel if my knowledge of his extremely slow rate of composition is any guide. Powers rests his reputation on the five or so best stories of his first collection-- among them his two best, "Lions" and "Prince." He adds to his achievement with the consistency, if slightly less awesome peaks, of the more unified stories in "Presence." And, with his novel, he entered, albeit briefly, the ranks of the most esteemed American writers of four or five decades ago.

This, published as Vatican II was in progress, ironically foreshadows the decline of the Catholic ghetto and clerical domination that the novel limns and critiques and celebrates somehow all deftly. It remains the best portrayal of how the Church once ruled Middle America, and those who have grown up since may marvel at the rapidity of the decline in clerical power. But, Fr. Urban and Powers seem to agree, such a fall from supposed grace had to happen if the Church was to remain intact and true to its divided calling. Whether or not Powers or his fictional priests and parishioners would have wanted the Church to shift so dramatically, or whether such a move was inevitable, I leave to you readers.

(Images: 1963 Red Letter cover; 2001 New York Review Press reissue.)

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