Asked once by an earnest graduate student to name the contemporary fiction writers he most admired, Saul Bellow answered with three, among them J.F. Powers, the author (at the time) of three volumes of short stories, The Prince of Darkness (1947), The Presence of Grace (1956), and Look How the Fish Live (1975), and a novel, Morte d’Urban, which won the National Book Award for 1962. Bellow’s choice was indicative: although Powers may not have a large following or a secure niche on the best-seller list, he does have a solid reputation as a writer’s writer, and he is widely anthologized.
Powers works a specialized territory, offering a richly comic and finely detailed insider’s view of the Roman Catholic Church in the American Midwest. The daily life of the rectory, the parish, and the diocese are his means of presenting a vision of the spirit afoot in a material world. While he has turned out a number of reasonably competent stories on secular themes, on the whole these seem more interesting for the contrast they offer to his “religious” work, a contrast that illustrates how a profound and deeply felt structure of belief can serve a writer’s gifts.
Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, into comfortable circumstances, James Farl Powers grew up there and in Rockford, Quincy, and Chicago. Although he enjoyed the childhood of a “real American boy,” he always felt himself something of an outsider in a Protestant milieu. As one of his characters notes of his own boyhood, “Protestants were very sure of themselves. . . . If you were a Catholic boy . . . you felt that it was their country, handed down to them by the Pilgrims, George Washington, and others, and that they were taking a risk in letting you live in it.”
Coming of age during the Depression in Chicago, the young Powers encountered a mighty struggle. In J.F. Powers, the only full-length study of the writer’s work, J.F. Hagopian records the words of one of Powers’s high-school teachers: “The gloomy outlook that young men had for their future in those days seemed to me to affect Jim more than the others.” Powers was able to find only irregular work as a salesman, a chauffeur, a clerk; his night-school education at Northwestern eventually had to be discontinued. According to Hagopian, he began to make the acquaintance of various “social rebels,” among them the leftist Catholic Workers.
During the war, Powers underwent a severe religious crisis and emerged a pacifist. Refusing induction into the armed forces, he did alternative service as an orderly in a Chicago hospital. Although clearly fascinated with the priesthood, Powers became a family man; his wife, the writer Elizabeth Wahl, with whom he had five children, died last year. From the beginning of his career, Powers has supplemented his writing income with grants and teaching jobs, for the past thirteen years at St. John’s College in Collegeville, Minnesota.
When he began writing during World War II, “it was mostly anger,” Powers has said, anger both personal and social, that shaped his efforts. The anger is readily reflected in a trio of early stories about the plight of the American Negro in the first half of this century. While not without effect, these stories—“The Trouble,” “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” and “The Eye”—rather simplistically portray a corrosively evil white world pitched against quietly heroic and dignified blacks. But it is not just poorly digested anger that makes Powers’s secular stories lesser achievements. In “Look How the Fish Live,” “Blue Island,” “Jamesie,” or “The Old Bird,” what seems at times to be an irrevocably hurt and wounded vision of the human condition issues in a lugubrious, almost maudlin effect, a deep and fated sense of disappointment.
With the clerical stories we enter a decidedly different atmosphere, for the most part. Here Powers seems more at ease in an imperfect universe, which he brings to life with an ironic, deadpan humor and a cool, subtle affection that come to constitute his distinctive voice. After all, to the Catholic (as Powers remarked in a recent interview), the world is fallen, and its imperfections cannot continually surprise or disappoint or affront. In fact—as the late Flannery O’Connor once observed in describing the function of the Catholic writer—such imperfections can be shown to be a medium for God’s grace. Thus, for example, in Powers’s “The Presence of Grace,” a grumpy, taciturn pastor manages to ignite a spirit of forgiveness in some irate parish ladies, while the more earnest and affable curate who has unintentionally aroused them looks on in wonder. In “Zeal,” an impeccably correct and reserved bishop learns something about his vocation from a boisterous but devoted priest willing to go to clumsy lengths to save a soul.
Powers has said of the Church that “there’s nothing bigger, cruder, more vulgar in the world,” and he is sometimes read as a straightforward satirist of its glaring moral flaws. But this view really flattens his achievement. Without some temporal structure, the spiritual vision of any religion would soon dissolve; the task for Powers’s priests is to maneuver among the ambiguities, paradoxes, and dilemmas that arise in serving God while having to deal with Mammon on a daily basis. Indeed, aside from one gravely moving story about a Franciscan, written early in his career, Powers’s clerical stories mainly concern the active diocesan priest, involved in the nitty-gritty of parish life, administering the sacraments with one hand while on the other coping with bills, appliances, contractors, imperious housekeepers, annoying parishioners, and household pests of various stripes. Powers’s priests do not suffer from sexual repression or from closet homosexuality. They are manly (or boyish) men with mostly real if not always very inspired vocations who enjoy smoking, drinking, sports, and a good game of cards. They like being priests, mean to keep their vows, and try to handle temptation when they are able to see it.
Powers’s first novel, Morte d’Urban (1962), probes the confrontation between the sacred and the secular with much greater depth and seriousness than do his stories, but without losing their considerable charm. The plot is narrated from the point of view of Father Urban, formerly Harvey Roche, the not always properly acknowledged star of the rather moth-eaten “preaching and teaching” Order of St. Clement. The Clementines, referred to by at least one irreverent priest as the Rinky Dinks, suffer under “the curse of mediocrity”:
In Europe the Clementines hadn’t (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn’t ever really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about—one saint (the Holy Founder) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologian worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.
All this greatly incenses the handsome, dynamic, silver-haired Father Urban (Spencer Tracy could have played him in the movie Powers refused to let be made of the book), who dreams of raising the “tone” of the order by packing it with exceptional men like himself and courting the benevolence of the rich and powerful. Father Urban is one who believes in conquering “the profane world before tackling the other one,” and in making friends, as Jesus advises in the puzzling passage from Luke that informs the novel, with the “mammon of unrighteousness.”
This, Father Urban has certainly done for himself. He plays a “near professional” game of golf, is fond of good cigars, fine liquor, elegant restaurants, and first-class travel on the Pullman trains that carry him along his mission circuit. He invariably ravishes his audiences with brilliantly conceived and carefully delivered sermons, more Protestant than Catholic in their polished oratory. Although he is true to the “spirit” of his vow of poverty, “his pockets were always full of gifts from grateful laymen and understanding pastors” and he is showered so plentifully at Christmastime that he can magnanimously bestow largesse upon his less fortunate brother priests.
So compelling is Father Urban’s character as drawn by Powers, and so skillfully is this novel structured from within his consciousness, that the reader can take quite a while before realizing that this priest has an ego as big as his talents, and that it is he who needs to learn a thing or two about his calling. His education should begin, but doesn’t quite, when he is sent to the order’s “newest white elephant,” a remote rural compound which he and some fellow priests are charged with renovating and operating as a retreat house. To attract what he considers a better class of retreat-ants, Father Urban builds a golf course with the aid of a rich benefactor, and through this and other Urban-instigated projects, the order is soon riding high. One day, however, he is beaned by the bishop’s golf ball during a dramatic playoff meant to represent the confrontation between the Church of history (“puritanism and black clericalism”) and Father Urban’s own more sanguine engagement with the world.
This accident comically secures Clementine possession of the retreat, which the bishop had been threatening to withdraw from the order, and is seen as one of those unexpected visitations of grace through imperfect means. Yet the accident also becomes the signal of a change in Father Urban’s fortunes. From here on, in one way or another, it is all downhill for his material successes, but uphill for his spiritual life. His rich friends cut him, badly, and he undergoes a series of humiliating trials which nevertheless purify and elevate him. It is at this point that he is elected Provincial of the order. Far from going on to execute his old ambitious plans, however, Father Urban surprises everyone by doing very little, arriving instead at a quiet respect for the ordinary workaday duties of the order and the ordinary, yeomanlike priests who perform them.
In the last chapter of the book, entitled “Dirge,” Powers almost seems to move outside of his character’s consciousness, as if to indicate that Father Urban has himself moved beyond the glad-handing accessibility of his former self. It is an uncompromising ending, oddly warm and chilling at once—the old worldly Urban fully obliterated, the new Urban softened, gentled, out of focus. We are reminded of the book’s title, which of course refers to Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur; early on in the novel, when he could scarcely have known what it would mean, Father Urban remarks that the real hero of that legend was Sir Lancelot, who toward the end of his life gave up his sword to become a priest.
Morte d’Urban is finely written, in a tightly wound and commanding style through which Powers, absorbing us into Father Urban’s world, alternately engages and challenges us with the system of values it represents. It cannot precisely be said, however, that Powers transcends his Catholic material to give it universal applicability. So closely is the novel bound to the history of the Church, to the perennial antagonisms among levels of its hierarchy, to the relationship of priests to their vows, to certain insider jokes, and so on, that probably few would recognize Father Urban as Everyman.
Morte d’Urban is set in the days of the postwar Church, when the world was still divided into Catholics and non-Catholics, when pastors were rushing to “build” for their overflowing, baby-booming flocks, when a married woman might have to kneel in the confession booth to hear a sermon against birth control. In his newly published second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green,1 which has been twenty-five years in the coming, Powers takes on the very different Church that has evolved since Vatican II.
Here Powers works his usual material from the other end. Young Joe Hackett, after a brief spell as a first-class sinner (in the venery department), enters the seminary aiming fervently and fanatically for “holiness.” If seminarians are historically divided between “ascetics and time-servers,” Joe is surely in the former category: he practices self-denial and even manages to get his hands on a hair shirt, not favored in his easygoing seminary. Knowing that he will be ordained into the busy life of a secular priest, Joe nevertheless hopes through “contemplation” to resist “sheer activity, the occupational disease of the diocesan clergy.”
In his own way, Joe does try to keep high standards after ordination. He eschews the typical parish priest’s constant financial haranguing of his congregation in favor of a yearly cover-all assessment on each parishioner. He refuses to buckle to congregants who ask for favors while tantalizingly fingering their checkbooks. He attempts to use the small, “hair-shirt” trials of daily life (he finds his parishioners a “pain in the ass”) as stepping-stones to sanctity. He resists the various fundraising and public-relations efforts pressed upon him by well-meaning experts. But he also indulges the “vices of eating and drinking,” especially the latter; and “he no longer hoped for a breakthrough.”
Joe begins a new phase of his life when he finally gets his long-awaited curate, who turns out to be a guitar-strumming, jeans-wearing offspring of the 60’s named Bill. Joe himself is no fan of the renovated Church, about which, during a boozy, masterfully rendered evening of “priestly fellowship,” he has a lot to say:
There might be worlds to be won, souls to be harvested, and so on, but not with stunts and gimmicks. He had been rather pessimistic about the various attempts to improve the Church’s image, and he had been right. Vocations, conversions, communions, confessions, contributions, general attendance, all down. And why not? “We used to stand out in the crowd. We had quality control. We were the higher priced spread. No more. Now if somebody drops the ball somebody else throws it into the stands, and that’s how we clear the bases. Tell the man in the next parish . . . that you fornicated a hundred and thirty-six times since your last confession, which was one month ago, and he says, ‘Did you think ill of your fellow man?’ It’s a crazy world.”
Yet, despite Joe’s determination to teach his young curate the futility of crusading to change the world, what really happens is that Bill sparks off Joe’s own buried idealism, now to be shaped toward and not away from society.
Unfortunately, Powers’s demonstration of Joe’s vocational rejuvenation seems rather tritely suited to the times. Joe counsels a young man to follow his conscience in running off to Canada to escape the draft during the Vietnam war; the sequence is presented with an almost servile respect for the young man and a rather arrogant contempt for those who would discourage him. Some time later, Joe abandons his comfortable surburban parish to take up work first in a Catholic Workers settlement house and then in the slums, achieving his own sobriety along the way, and all in about four pages.
Although Powers’s own liberalism is deeply rooted, and goes back much further than the 60’s, this ending seems shockingly cheap, hitting the hitherto exhilarated reader like Father Urban’s golf ball, but without any spiritual payoff afterward. In general, throughout Powers’s fiction the Christian perspective is complex enough, the narrative skill adroit enough, to overcome the piques and biases of personal animus. Thus, for example, Powers’s somewhat simplistic disdain for the spoiled and selfish rich in Morte d’Urban is woven cunningly into the aggressive lines and plentiful depths of the novel. And even in the new book, sentimentality toward the poor is kept securely fastened until the end. But then it just springs loose, popping up like a broken coil. Joe’s newfound dedication to the poor may have a long pedigree in the Church, but novelistically it seems more out of Hollywood than St. Francis, and badly damages what is mostly a funny, touching, and engagingly written novel.
One wonders longingly what richer and more challenging resolution Powers might have been driven to create had he not availed himself of this ready-made redemption. Much of Powers’s work counsels the need to preserve purity of vision against the crass temptations of modern American life; but temptation comes in ways not easily recognized, and here is one telling instance in which the novelist would have profited greatly by heeding his own advice.
1 Knopf, 335 pp., $18.95.