Morte D'Urban is a book I think I should have loved, and for a while I did, but it was too Catholic even for me. Now I realize the novel's intention was in fact to illuminate the ways in which the Catholic Church resembles an often inefficient private corporation... Urban's exchanges with Father Wilfrid, a puttering doofus who runs the Minnesota retreat, are comedy gold. Wilfrid is seemingly only concerned with the maintenance and refurbishment of the retreat house, and as such he enlists Urban in many idiotic do-it-yourself projects. At other times, I didn't love Morte D'Urban so much. I would say there's about a hundred page stretch in this 340 page book that just kind of drags, concerned as it is on expounding upon the tricky relationships at a nearby parish called St. Monica's and upon Urban's plan to found a golf course adjacent to the retreat center. He's human, sure, but I don't know that he's the best counterposition to the bureaucratic inefficiency and complacency of the Catholic Church. Sure, next to Father Wilfrid and his ilk, Urban appears lively and colorful, but transposed to St. Monica's and the golf course, he's just another guy. A golfing priest, a Catholic salesman. Powers approaches the Catholic bureaucracy as if his audience fully understands its intricacies.
At another level, this book is a character study, in particular of Father Urban. When Father Urban saw the gun, a rifle, he feared for his life, thinking this was some half-witted yokel---who, having been given hunting privileges, and having killed a stranger, would get off scot free at the inquest. I wouldn't have known you." "Game make a noise like that sometimes," said Father Wilfrid, who, on account of his broad nose and padded cheeks, had been called Bunny in the Novitiate. "What kind of game?" "Well, deer do." Father Urban doubted that any deer in its right mind would show itself in broad daylight in such an open area. "That's what I'm after." "For a moment, I was afraid it might be people," Father Urban said, smiling, remembering the big rabbit who shot the hunter in Struwwelpeter "It's no laughing matter. See." Father Urban observed a small, smooth hole in the ground. Or is that something else?" ----------Now, clearly - CLEARLY - it's obvious that a young Harold Ramis read this and was inspired, and just as Father Urban would go on to build a golf course at the seminary (without taking the credit, of course), Ramis, too, would tee it up.
It's a difficult book to find (I think it's out of print but your library may have a copy), but if you feel a little frustrated about your current job, it's worth picking up.
seeing how it's yet another very quiet (and quietly funny) realistic portrait of an isolated priest in the midwest. these books are funny in that they are gently satirical. in a way that comes from seeing this world as a temporary waystation, a kind of cosmic experiment or proving ground. it's all kinda funny, and all kinda sad, but there's a god in heaven, and eternal life, so you take the hits and move on and try not to complain. i am probably not expressing it very well, but there really is something one-of-a-kind about the way powers sees and writes.
Powers has one of the best ears in vernacular fiction, sufficiently so for Evelyn Waugh to cite him as his favorite American writer.
Our protagonist Father Urban successful, charming, handsome is a traveling salesman out of Chicago for the fictional Order of St. Clement. Critics often compare him to Babbitt, but thats not right: hes a dynamic, solicitous priest. Father Urban is one of few men in the Order capable of turning things around.
I read the novel because it won the National Book Award in 1963. Morte D'Urban, the third novel concerning priests from my 1963 list, was a stand out. The author, who wrote only Catholic fiction, seems to have been unusually clear eyed regarding the challenges of living a dedicated religious life in our materialist culture. Now that I think about it, this conflict between the world and the priest is almost always a theme in any religious fiction I have read so apparently it is a known issue. Morte D'Urban has a sorrowful ending and I could see it coming as I read.
It's a little difficult to get into a book following a brother of the order of St. Clement through dioscesan politics and secular fundraising in the midwest of the late 50s/early 60s. For one thing, the tone of the book, especially the dialogue, really makes me picture every character both looking and sounding like Harry Truman. The characterization of the main character, Father Urban, is convincing, even if his midcentury verbal mannerisms ring in my ears.
J.F. Powers is less obscure than the previous long out of print author I reviewed, but nonetheless, unless someone was really into either Midwestern literature or American Catholic writers, you'd probably never know him, despite the fact this novel won the American Book Award back in 1963 and his fans included such great writers as Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Connor. His two novels and much of his short fiction dwells on the lives of Catholic priests, mostly on the worldly aspects of the politics and the economic nuts and bolts of working with a large somewhat dysfunctional bureaucracy and dealing with parishioners, whom one must serve as spiritual adviser... The spiritual message of this particular novel is buried underneath all the secular aspects, I actually had to read the last two chapters and epilogue over again to really get at the nut of what was a crisis of faith and it's resolution that is never spoken of directly, and instead is presented as an outward tragedy. His popularity, administrative skill and most importantly, his barely concealed aspirations towards leadership makes him a target for the regional head of the order, who de facto exiles him to a decrepit retreat house in the countryside of Minnesota, where his father superior is a thick, stubborn cheapskate. With finesse and hard-work, Urban applies his skills in cultivating rich patrons, winning over parishes with guest sermons and making business deals in order to recreate the successful life he had in Chicago. You can see the meticulous outlining the author did in regards to thematic arcs because he honed the descriptive language and plot situations so starkly, it stands out a bit much and tends to drag rather than move the plot along, hence me reading the ending too quickly the first time around. Much like O'Connor's Southern Gothic and Waugh's British aristocrat mien, this novel delivers the church's message with a soft-spoken, dry, midwestern reserve.
An unusual stinker in an interesting collection, this one proves that some books should stay forgotten.
James Farl Powers was an American novelist and short-story writer who often drew his inspiration from developments in the Catholic Church, and was known for his studies of Catholic priests in the Midwest.