Saturday, November 14, 2009

Morte d'Urban by JF Powers


Morte d’Urban is a most unusual book, a sort of Babbitt with cassocks: big business and the machinations of the Catholic church, it’s an odd mixture indeed. I really don’t know what to make of it. It was published in 1962 and won the National Book Award, beating Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and Updike’s debut, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, which is quite an impressive array of literature. Nonetheless, it’s probably fair to say that Powers hasn’t stood the test of time all that well.

The central character is Father Urban, a priest in the Order of St Clement, a mediocre order which has no great claim to utility. ‘The Clementines were unique,’ we are told, ‘in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.’ Seemingly unique among them, Father Urban is possessed of ability and charisma. He is a popular speaker and, more significantly, helps draw money and backers to the order, most notably the businessman Billy Cosgrove, who proceeds to donate significant funds. One might have expected this to serve Father Urban’s career prospects well, but that would be to underestimate the politics at the heart of any organisation. Father Urban is sent to deepest Minnesota. There, he is quickly embroiled in a series of DIY disasters as he attempts to stop the Order’s building from collapsing around him, performs admirably in the role of parish priest and shows more entrepreneurial skill when he establishes a new golf course in the grounds. Life couldn’t get much better for Father Urban, could it? Oh yes! Quickly followed by Oh No!

It’s a fun book, a sly satire in which the target isn’t particularly the Catholic Church, as much as organisations in general. The humour is gentle, as is the action. It’s a far cry from the political fictions we think about in sixties American. Father Urban is an engaging and humane character, an everyman that everyman would secretly quite like to be: slightly cleverer than average and a touch aloof, but warm-hearted and kind, thoughtful to the last. The novel charts the conflict of this good man with a system that is designed with the lowest common denominator in mind.

I suspect, though, that Powers is aiming at something deeper, too. This is not mere whimsy. Father Urban straddles the secular and religious worlds, but is not entirely comfortable in either. He is too proud, cynical and worldly for the cloistered environs of St Clement’s, but too wholesome and decent for the opportunistic outside world. Thus, the ending, in which the general sunniness of the novel dissipates somewhat, reflects a spiritual ambivalence which is surely not directed purely at the church but, more widely, at all of us?

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