December 2, 2020

Recommendation and Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

mducover.jpgMy wife says I need to read more fiction, and she’s right as usual. So, of course, I find a way to read religious fiction. After finishing J.F. Powers Morte D’Urban, I wanted to share this wonderful book with you.

J.F. Powers passed away in 1999, and recent reissues of his novels and short stories have brought his name back into the light, at least for those interested in the intersection of literature and Christianity. In 1963, Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award, and it remains a wonderful example of contemporary literature, presaging the literary voice of a Garrison Keillor, with incredible attention to the mixture of pathos, tragedy, humor, boredom and wonder that is ordinary life. Powers’ gifts of recording mundane conversations, trains of thoughts and that most difficult of communal activities to capture, the business meeting, are truly amazing.

As a young writer, Powers found little success, eventually going to jail for conscientious objection and supporting himself as a teacher of writing- a career he never really left behind. At some point- and Powers’ scholars differ as to where, why and how- Powers found what would be his lifelong subject matter: the lives and business of midwestern priests. Powers’ characters are ordinary priests, dealing with relationships that never quite work, with the absurdities of “business” in the world’s largest religious institution and with the all too familiar patterns of priestly routine and struggle. Few writers have ever seemed to know a subject so well when they had no personal experience of it. In describing the world of the ordinary Catholic priest, Powers is a rival of Tolkien describing elves and hobbits.

Faith itself is rarely discussed in these books. Powers’ characters are believers, simple pre-Vatican II Catholics (for the most part) for whom the church is what it is and experiential religion is rarely a major concern. (Father Joe’s early zeal in Wheat That Springeth Green is an exception, and even then is presented as excessive.) If a character doubts, he or she still believes in some way. It is a particularly Catholic way of viewing faith that will take strike evangelicals as odd. Stay with it. It’s worth it.

Readers looking for typical religious fiction will be disappointed. These are very humane books, with no real agenda to convert or preach, but simply to take you inside the experience of men who are like us, yet marked out by vows to not be like us. (I couldn’t help thinking how similar Power’s external world is to the external world of C.S. Lewis’s “patient” in The Screwtape Letters. Nothing more exciting than eating toast may be the focus, but there is another world at work.)

Morte D’Urban
is the story of Father Urban, a gifted preacher and fund raiser for a rather pitiful order called the Clementines. Father Urban is a worldly priest, at home with the rich and a constant guest at the best accommodations. He is, in his way, the envy of men, with a way with words, both sexes and entire congregations. Acquiring the recent friendship of a wealthy, and shady, character from his adopted hometown of Chicago, Father Urban seems destined to bring even more success and money to his order, with a few crumbs dropped along the way for himself.

Then, at what seems to be the height of his career, he is reassigned to the middle of nowhere, ordered the staff of a destitute and falling apart retreat center in rural Minnesota. There is no explanation, and Father Urban finds himself painting, hoeing, doing weekend work in small town churches, and in constant conflict with his new superiors.

He copes, and in his adjustment and eventual redemption, Powers tells us the story of how a Christian hits the wall in life and continues on. The surprises along the way are delightful, poignant and beautiful. The ending of the story is, frankly, as powerful as any book I’ve ever read.

My students read many famous writers and each one is different, but all great writers create a balance in their work: inner development and outward events; humor and tragedy; reality and fantasy; good and evil; beginnings and endings. Powers is a master at this kind of balance, and he uses this skill to wrap you in the many layers of a character’s life in a way that feels amazingly real. Every person will experience the life, ridiculous reversals, absurd changes, losses, victories and redemption of Father Urban, and will somehow feel they have experienced these things in real life.

Students of Christian fiction should particularly study Powers. He is worthy of many more readers and much emulation. I commend him to you and anticipate hearing from you as you discover the art of this wonderful writer.

NOTE: Joseph Bottum wrote a fine piece on Powers, and John Derbyshire had an excellent review of Powers and his work.