Thursday, September 20, 2007

J. F. Powers’ “Wheat that Springeth Green”: Review

This final entry--1988 marks its long-delayed arrival--in a lengthy career (starting in the mid-1940s) of scant fiction marks the end of the postwar, triumphalist, yet marginalized, Midwestern Catholic parish—and notably here, rectory—intrigues that Powers excelled at conveying. His scale, being so focused, gains accuracy and depth by its concentration upon detail. Like a model railroad set, the 1:150 (or whatever!) ratio means painstaking attention to fidelity. Such realism to the untutored eye appears grotesque or caricatured, but to an aware observer reveals a nearly exact fit of form with content.

{Note: the other six reviewers all gave it a perfect five on Amazon...] I give it four rather than five stars as I have re-read (and reviewed here [and on this blog], "Morte" and the thirty stories in their original three volumes as well as the collected reissue) all of Powers recently, and I believe that his many strengths as a writer are at times clouded slightly by his tendency towards oversubtlety. A forgivable fault in an era of so many authors straining for the obvious or what critics call "overdetermining" their subject, but Powers tends in all his work towards lengthy passages where not much goes on at all, but in which an editor could have polished the presentation and refined the craft even further. Powers appears to have been his own worse enemy and his own most scrupulous critic, on the other hand. Be it as it may, Powers makes nearly all of his peers look hasty, scattered, and undisciplined by comparison.

Action over the course of a priest’s youth, coming of age, and gradual rise from curate to administrative assistant (when that word did not connote a secretary or receptionist) and then pastor comprises the narrative. Less verve here than the worldlier, more urbane Fr Urban had, but perhaps in his principled if compromised (the whole crux of the tension) fidelity to the needs of separating “Church from Dreck” Powers reveals that the need for reform Fr Urban realized while Vatican II was still in session (so to speak) by the end of the decade became all the more apparent as the slow slide downhill accelerated. Set by its conclusion around 1968, if offhandedly, the Catholic Worker roots of Powers and his conservative radicalism stand his fictional main character in good stead as priests wander off, parishioners ignore crusty priests’ reprimands, malls open on Sundays, the hillbilly’s war machine thunders on in the small town press, and guitars with cant supplant chant.

This novel, like his earlier (sharing with it a clumsy if rarified referential title) “Morte d’Urban,” (1962), suffers from arid stretches, where the humor is so deadpan, the pace so true that the inert nature of our own shared experience with the clerical protagonists appears too neatly aligned. Dullness enters. A VD quarantine warning takes up one and a half pages verbatim. A few sample sermons from Father Felix (who helps out saying weekend Masses) summarize the stultifying, yet sincere, homiletics of a certain, less soundbitten, age. So with Powers, who in this novel had been criticized as a man out of time, with figures he identified with whose era had passed them by. Joe is only in his mid-forties. He seems much older. This may be a sign of now-diminished respect, when the maturity demanded of authority figures gave an earned dignity and a bit of unearned noblesse oblige to the clergy in smaller towns where the collar still mattered. Joe Hackett manages to get through the routine, and out of the limelight that had once courted his counterpart Fr. Urban, this parish priest does his best balancing God with Mammon, as the demands of a new accounting system make fundraising all the more essential, even as this pulls at the Gospel admonition that it’s better to give alms in secret. How to square this with the need to make accountable freeloading parishioners when the Archbishop’s needs come payable on demand? Out of such quandaries, Powers raises his own quiet art.

The need in fiction for a jolt, a spark, a spin off from the quotidian to the profound nestles, certainly, in Powers. This, however, moves along leisurely, and often nothing seems to happen for chapters at a time. Then, you understand that this accurately limns the trajectory of a recognizably human life like our own. You can see Powers’ study of Joyce in his preparation of the slow ascent to epiphanies, such as Fr. Joe Hackett’s finessed blessing of a scruffy draft resister who steps to tie his shoelaces while the padre finagles praying over his head and out of eyesight or earshot as the young man prepares to flee to Canada, on the pastor’s unspoken advice but according to his moral example.

Re-reading this nearly two decades after it appeared, I admire Powers’ critique of not only the institutional Church and its compromises with the world, but of his own admission that holy Joes only go so far in their own zeal in battling for their losing side. They must do so, vowed to do so and called by their Maker, but Powers recognizes in his own mellowing how annoying piety and phariseeism can be for the rest of us. Not for nothing is an early battle Joe engages in at the seminary, much to the disgust of some classmates and the suspicion of his rector, over the necessity of wearing a hairshirt.

Constructed in part from stories written over the past (two of which appeared in the last of his three thin story collections, 1975’s “Look How the Fish Live,” the novel does let its seams show. I wonder if parts of this novel were left too long on the shelf, or in hibernation. Yet, this is how Powers wrote. Very slowly, spending days pondering if a character would use the term “pal” or “chum” in referring to a confrere. Such was his state of mind, and more power to him. Probably a patron saint of scrupulous writers, if he is canonized as he deserves! His friend and colleague Jon Hassler eulogized him as “a saint with a bad temper.” Hassler notes how Powers could strain so long over a detail that a reader, even an informed one such as himself, might miss the very nuanced finesse.

The extended battle of the story that was “Bill” for Joe to learn his new curate’s name appears tedious and unbelievable, a shaggy-dog tale after a few pages of the many devoted to this embarrassing and rather cryptic episode. The story earlier published as “Priestly Fellowship” enters the novel mostly unchanged, but again the dive into the post-Vatican II uproar appears muted, if perhaps less dated for its lack of topicality to specific changes so much as the persistent lack of clerical fidelity. Yet, as the novel lengthens, the episodes do build upon possibilities tucked into these two stories, and while they unfold in off-handed and perhaps overly-controlled fashion, they are truer to the texture of everyday life for being so controlled. Holiness comes, if at all, minutely slow. The lack of histrionics or forced symbolism remains despite the uneven pacing in his longer works Powers’ greatest talent. Powers knew when and how indirect first-person voice carried his stories; his shift in and out of his protagonist’s minds is at its best in the imagined reverie Joe lets himself into as he pitches in the yard with Bill to let off steam. As with Urban’s similarly prosy—both exaggerated and ordinary-- temptation at Belleisle in “Morte,” the priestly heroes let their deepest selves emerge when they pretend they are just like the rest of us. Powers, and we, know better.

A final word, quoted from one of his students in Commonweal on his death in 1999. In the novel, out of his collar on a much-needed vacation, Joe passes himself off at the hotel bar as working for a “big concern,” in “life insurance.” The firm? “Eternal.” Sort of a multinational, he admits, although he works out of a local “branch office.” Powers explained when asked in class why he wrote so much about the clergy, and if he was anticlerical. "I'm not anticlerical. I simply look for a story that elucidates truth. If a human being buys an insurance policy, that's not much of a story. But when a priest buys an insurance policy, there's something going on that needs to be said and I want to say it." It took him nearly fifty years to write it.

(Also posted to Amazon; images of original 1988 cover playing off in turn original 1962 cover, and NY Review Press reissue. The fridge in Joe's rectory's often filled with beer, or should be, considering that the lack of such puts him in a pickle.)

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