Pocket Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

J.F. Powers had no broad popular following when he was alive, but was known among his peers as a brilliant satirist and meticulous craftsman. He wrote both short stories and novels, and in both forms priests are his principal subjects. In two of his short story collections, The Prince of Darkness (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956), Powers, in a satirical, lightly humorous vein, criticizes clerics who confine their intellectual pursuits to the likes of Reader’s Digest and concentrate their attention on rectory comforts, quality automobiles and golf at the country club at the expense of pastoral care. At the time quite a few liberal readers, impatient and frustrated with the Catholic Church, thought Powers was on their side. But he loved his religion and its liturgy. He just wished the clergy lived up to their vocational obligations.

PowersPowers’ best-known work is his 1963 National Book Award winner Morte D’Urban, a brilliant comic novel with some fine slapstick touches. Although sharply satirical and concerned in a biting way with its subject, the book is also a serious one. Despite the fact that many of its chapters were originally published separately as short stories, it is not at all an episodic novel, but a carefully structured one. As in much of his work, he examines the relationship between the religious and secular worlds. However, there are no angels, no miracles, no sudden shafts of light breaking through the clouds. The supernatural, in fact, is entirely absent. The world of Morte D’Urban is one we all inhabit: the world of bills, irksome duties, comforting habits and tiny pleasures, of tiresome colleagues we have no choice but to get along with and superiors making all the wrong decisions. The work of the priests in the book resembles the work most middle-class Americans do in corporate offices or public bureaucracies.

Testing one’s faith as a movement toward spiritual rebirth is a motif that is repeated throughout the book. Powers positions his ambitious middle-aged protagonist in such a situation: he must undergo a symbolic death of the spirit in order to gain a more steadfast spiritual outlook. Transferred from Chicago to a remote monastery in Minnesota because of his inflated ego, Father Urban Roch—whose mantra is “Be a Winner”—industriously sets about creating a luxurious retreat, a Club Med of the spirit, until his excesses lead to the ultimate spiritual collapse. In the end, his greatest success proves a setback from which he cannot recover.

Thankfully, in 2000 New York Review Books Classics reissued Powers’ catalog (the huge collected Stories of J.F. Powers and two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green), rescuing his work from obscurity. Coupled with the fact that Powers worked with such immense skill and tough-minded compassion, his writing should surely endure.

Sean
Long was born in Ireland and came to the U.S. with his family at the
age of six in 1964. He’s an avid reader of Southern and Irish
Literature and lives with his wife and daughter in Mount Dora, Florida.

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5 Comments to Pocket Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

  1. Karen Wall's Gravatar Karen Wall
    October 22, 2009 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    If it’s a NYRB Classic and a Readervillian likes it, I want to read it. What a great cover, too. Thanks, Sean.

  2. Sean's Gravatar Sean
    October 22, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    That is a great cover, isn’t it? NYRB must have thought highly of Powers’ work since they published the whole lot. I was close to convincing them to reissue Elizabeth Cullinan’s House of Gold and Yellow Roses. A junior editor was all for it, but the boss man said no. If you ever see her books in a used book store, pick them up.

  3. October 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Charles Baxter talks about Powers in his excellent The Art of Subtext, which is what first put him on my radar. Along with your testimony, Sean, I’m sold.
    The fact that they’re NYRB editions always bypasses any hesitation I might have. I’ll pick them up almost by reflex. I have the brand loyalty bigtime.

  4. Sean's Gravatar Sean
    October 22, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Holy shit! That Baxter is on my want list, big time.
    I have a small section in my library devoted to NYRB editions. My latest want is the newest Mavis Gallant reissue.
    Do you know that the year Powers won the NBA he beat out Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and Katherine Anne Porter? Alas, even after he won he was still somewhat neglected.

  5. PatD's Gravatar PatD
    October 23, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Not to belabour the point, but Open Letters Monthly has several wonderful posts about Mavis Gallant. Check this one out:
    http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/issue/book-review-complete-stories-mavis-gallant/
    I’m not at all familiar with J. F. Powers. Thanks, Sean.

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