It seemed to him that the Order of St. Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning. 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 theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.
Father Urban, however, wants to change all that. He’s a popular preacher–the type of priest with whom you can have a beer (or something stronger)–and he’s on the constant lookout for potential donors, quite willing to overlook a little vice among his flock in exchange for higher congregational participation and the greater financial good of his organization. The problem, however, is that his popularity among his congregants and wealthy donors doesn’t translate into popularity at Clementine headquarters in Chicago or with the Father Provincial. Urban’s grand plans to transform his order’s old-fashioned torpor to a flashier modernity are rewarded by a new post: he’s sent packing to the Protestant backwaters of Minnesota, to a decrepit retreat house run by Father Wilf, a penny-pinching rector defensive about his territory.
Making the most of a bad situation, Urban applies his charm to the local Catholic population, to a new group of potential donors, and, eventually, to the refurbishment of the retreat itself, including the addition of a world-class golf course (complete with a “shrine of St. Mary below no. 5 green.”) But something has happened to Father Urban during his time serving parishioners in — basically — Lake Wobegon. He feels uncomfortable with his most generous donor, Billy, when it becomes clear that Billy salves his conscience by giving to the church. He begins to sympathize with Father Wilf. He even realizes that in some way, he considers St. Clement’s Hill his home.
Morte d’Urban is essentially a satirical novel. It stops shy of full-on EvelynWaugh-style farce, but it’s very funny. J.F. Powers uses a dry, subtly witty style accented by moments of full-on slapstick to show the creaky transition the Catholic church was making in the 1950s, between the war years and the years of conspicuous consumption, televisions, advertising. Powers has tremendous insight into the way people work; he sympathizes with Urban, but he doesn’t let him off the hook. I found myself laughing at each new situation, shaking my head: don’t you know that won’t work?
The real mainspring of this novel, however, is not essentially comic. Father Urban’s calling as a Catholic priest is quietly in question throughout the book. Is he a faithful priest, or is he a PR man? Are those vocations reconcilable? There are plenty of places where you can see Powers’s scaffolding — I understand that he constructed this novel from several previously-published short stories, and sometimes it shows — overemphasized metaphors, like the Arthurian one from which the book takes its title, or a heavy-handed moment with a stag that symbolizes the church. But the theme of Urban’s own spiritual trajectory, his struggle with missed connections, alienation, learning simply to get along with other human beings — there, you never see the way Powers does it, and yet it’s the most powerful and moving thing in the book. It makes me think that the other stuff is mere sleight-of-hand. Look, nothing up my sleeve: and now you see a real human soul.
Morte d’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963. It’s a snapshot of a time and place, a certain Catholic milieu, a certain landscape. (There isn’t, for instance, a single positive portrayal of a woman in it.) I read it with some initial reluctance, but the people in it are so real, so alive, so funny and so tangled in their own lives, that I was pulled into loving this book almost despite myself. I kept wondering aloud why I’d never heard of it before. Well, now you have.