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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers

Morte D'Urban
J.F. Powers
NYRB
ISBN 0940322234

Originally Published as:

Morte d'Urban
Doubleday, Garden City,
New York, 1962, 336p.
ISBN 9997414411

This book won the national book award in 1963 for fiction. Our hero Father Urban is a little quirky and self-centered; yet even with those faults it is hard not to sympathize with him. I approached this book with some regret. It was the last of Powers' works I would have the chance to read. So I took my time and slowly read chapter by chapter, savoring the book over a much longer period than I normally would. The book was both satisfying and a bit of a disappointment. It was satisfying in that I have now completed the published books of J. F. Powers. It was also sad because of this fact. It was a bit disappointing in that the story feels unfinished. Like a chapter was left out when it went to printing.

Some of the plot was inevitable, and predictable, but the characters you meet along the way make the book very engaging and entertaining. I am a post Vatican II baby. As such, I do not know the Latin Mass - have only read books, and seen films of what the church was like before that period. Powers is a master at creating characters, and characters that are believable. His priests, brothers, monsignors and even bishops are believable to anyone who has had serious interactions even with clergy of today. I know of a priest locally who could be an Urban walking off the page to take up ministry today.

Many segments of this book were previously published as short stories in a variety of sources. Powers was a master at the short story, but his creative genius was his ability to take those short stories and turn them into a convincing novel. He has done this with both his published novels - this book Morte D'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green. Both books were nominated for the National Book Award and Urban won. That is the testament to Powers' power and prowess with the quill. It is also witness to his ability to transcend the short story, a genre that appears to be going by the wayside, and to compile books of great depth and insight. Modern author Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, wanted to write a book of short stories, but his publisher, even with his popularity after Fight Club, would not allow him a book of short stories. Then Palauniuk wrote Haunted a collection of characters' personal stories told by a group of writers locked in a building. Powers achieves what Palahniuk does not in that his stories flow together seamlessly, where Palahniuk's are obviously individual stories.

This book is worth the read for anyone wanting a glimpse of insight into post World War II Catholicism, especially in the Midwest. But it is also a great study of people and why they do what they do - what drives them to achieve, their dreams and ultimately their failures and defeats. Unfortunately I have now read all of Powers' fiction. Fortunately the 2 books and 3 collections of short stories can be savored again and again. I can predict I have not finished with reading Powers, or Urban.

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy

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