J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban creates an American scene of striking individuality: Roman Catholic priests in a woebegone village in Minnesota. That is the general subject and setting, but the outstanding quality and vividness of the novel is in the composition, the mastery of detail, the wit of the teller, the placing of the characters, each in his fore-ordained spot in the Church hierarchy. The clash of innate disposition with the surrounding blanket of the special vocation gives rise to comic misadventures, disappointments, competitions within the lightly cloistered world each of the priests has entered with the solemnity of his choice of vocation.
Father Urban, born Harvey Roche in Abe Lincoln’s Illinois, a Catholic surrounded by Protestants who thought the 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.” The you, the risk, was Catholics with their fancy vestments, their intoning in Latin, burning incense, and throwing holy water around. The young Harvey Roche, while acting as chauffeur for a renowned, modern, extroverted priest, Father Placidus, is inspired not only to take his own vows but to cherish the memory of Father Placidus by an inclination for the worldly pleasures and plums of position the old Father had annexed for himself in his practice of the vocation. That is, staying in good hotels while traveling, bending a glass in first-class restaurants, taking in a performance of Mlle. Modiste, organizing boys’ choirs and basketball teams; altogether cutting a benign and pleasant figure in the world.
Father Urban has risen in the rather unimpressive Order of St. Clement in Chicago by a whirl of traveling and preaching around the country. He is a star on the religion circuit, an ambitious man who expects, when his turn comes about, to be made head of the Chicago branch of the Order. He has ideas for the future of the group; ideas practical on the one hand and intellectually serious on the other hand. “It seemed to him that the Order of St. Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning…. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.”
Instead, Father Boniface, the reigning priest in Chicago, has other plans for Father Urban, whom he doesn’t much like.
Men like Father Boniface talked of “beefing up” the Order, but Father Urban had another idea—to raise the tone by packing the Novitiate with exceptional men. He had overshot the mark on occasion—two of his recruits had proved to be homosexual and one homicidal…. But there were three or four lads out at the Novitiate, superior lads hanging on for dear life in difficult surroundings. What hope Father Urban had for the Order was in them, and in a few others younger than himself but safely ordained, and in himself.
Father Boniface would see about that, if such is the way to express …
Copyright (c) 2000 by Elizabeth Hardwick
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