A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


J.F. Powers

Todays Washington Post has an essay by book critic Jonathan Yardley on J. F. Powers novel, Morte dUrban, first published in 1962, winner of the National Book Award in 1963, and now back in print from, of all places, New York Review Book Classics (along with Powers next novel, Wheat that Spingeth Green, and The Stories of J.F. Powers). Those of a certain age will remember the short stories, many of them about life among the Roman Catholic clergy. Yardley says that this is the fourth time hes read the novel. He still finds it "one of the few genuinely good American novels about business," "a much better novel than Babbitt, subtler, wittier and much more elgantly written." And all this for a novel that revolves around a Catholic priest.

I wonder how many Catholics are aware of Powers work. This review has moved me to re-read things that I first read now almost fifty years ago.


Commenting Guidelines

I'm aware of Powers, know that his work is probably very revealing of the generation before my own, and regret not having read it. But there's a whole generation of American fiction there that I haven't read much of.May I ask in my most irenaic tone why the NYRB Classics series is a strange place to find it?

I'm a subscriber to the NYRB since it started, so my comment simpy referred to the fact that the kind of fiction that Powers wrote is not the kind of fiction that that journal takes note of. So I'm surprised that they rank his work among the "classics." I'm happy about it, but surprised. That's all

One of the attractive things about the NYRB is that it can surprise. But actually I could well imagine J.M. Cameron reviewing Powers in the old days, not mention Garry Wills later. Another thing about the NYRB is that it is the only game on the continent.

"His appointment to Holy Faith, as assistant to Father Van Slaag, the only known contemplative in the diocese (among pastors), was not crazy, Joe believed. No, the Chancery must have heard of his hard times at the seminary, where hed been the only known contemplative he didnt really qualify as such, he knew, unless maybe by desire, but he did have that reputationand the Archbishop must have decided to make it two of a kind at Holy Faith. It was an odd appointment, perhaps, but it appeared odder than it was to those who recalled the efforts of the old Archbishop to strike a balance in parishes by pairing athletes with aesthetes, scholars with dunces, fat kine with lean. The new Archbishop was known to have said that his priests had enough to do without working out on each other; not that it was his policy to accommodate everybodypoker players, hi-fiers, photographers, astronomers, activists, liturgistsand not that some of his appointments didnt smack of old-fashioned therapy: a lush in the suburbs whod lost his drivers license could find himself walking the corridors of a five-hundred-bed hospital in the city as a chaplain under the thumb of nuns; a big spender could find himself operating under the buddy or commissar system, with an assistant empowered to act for him and the parish in all money matters over two dollars and fifty cents.Joe believed that his appointment, in a similar waynot, of course, in the same wayshowed special concern on the part of the Archbishop, by whose wisdom and grace both pastor and assistant at Holy Faith were spared that heckling suspicion that is the lot of contemplatives, and even more of would-be contemplatives, in the modern world. With no need to apologize or explain, as each would have had to do with any other priest in the diocese, they could get on with or, in Joes case, down to the job of working and praying for their personal sanctification and salvation (and their parishioners)." from "The Warm Sand"

Thoughtless (literally) of me to quote a passage dealing with priestly appointments and bishops--I don't have any intention of opening that can of worms. It's just that I'm a big fan of literary *lists*, these quirky, lifelike litanies of like and unlike things, and Powers wrote one of my favorites: "poker players, hi-fiers, photographers, astronomers, activists, liturgists"But probably I should have mentioned one of the passages about the prie-dieu or the little dog instead.

Powers and Flannery O'Connor were contemporaries although I don't believe they ever met or corresponded.From what little of Powers I've read, I have the impression that his characters experience a God who is safely tucked away in the tabernacle.In O'Connors fiction, on the other hand, the characters' enounters with the divine are often direct, and unmediated, like being hit by lightening.

Seeing that Antonio mentioned Flannery O'Connor, let it be known that on September 28th, Archbishop George Niederauer will be presenting a talk at the U of San Francisco entitled: "Flannery O'Connor's Vision of Faith, Church and Modern Consciousness."I wonder how many others of our over-exalted hierarchy in the US could do similarly?

Antonio:Apparently the best way to call down God into O'Connor's world is to say: "I am not a warthog. From hell."In Yardley's review, he says he doesn't know of any better novels on the American workplace than Morte d'Urban. Couldn't say, but I would recommend a non-fiction book called The Lives of Lawyers: Journeys in the Organization of Practice, by Michael Kelly (UMich Press).

I wouldn't exactly have seen the excellence of Morte d'Urban as its brilliant depiction of the American workplace. It is very cleverly written, though, the sort of book that must have been labored over long and hard. I Like the way he sets the reader up to expect something --it could be a familiar line of clerical blather or an established quirk of character, and then pulls a devilishly neat switch that makes his point. Powers can be very funny, but he is also subtle and there is a lot of compassion there as well.


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.