Thursday 17 December 2009

Morte d'Urban - J.F. Powers

Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers, Image Books, New York Review Of Books, New York, NY. 2000 (First published in 1962). This book won the 1963 National book award for fiction. It is the story of Father Urban, a man in the church but also a man of the world; a man just as comfortable in a five star hotel as a camp site. But he is also a man of ambition. He believes he should be leading the Clementines, and when at the General meeting, the current leader of the order retains his position, Urban is vanquished to the order's outpost in rural Minnesota. Powers has created a novel that is considered a classic in American literature, yet in many ways it is atypical.

The novel focuses around a factious religious order, the Clementines and a man in that order that is great at interacting with the world, but maybe not so religious. The Clementines are a mediocre order at best, and they know it. They went through a few years of success and growth, but things have been on a down turn. Men with vocations want an order with a history, like the Jesuits or Benedictines. Urban, our hero, feels the order needs to be more relevant, and as he is relegated to the sidelines in Minnesota, he does his best to turn that situation around and to make a comeback.

The greatest strength of Powers' writings, and this book in particular, are the characters. The people in this book seem real, hard, hardened and human, not lofty and overly good, not demons. Just humans trying to make their way in the world, humans full of faults and flaws. Another strength is the timeless nature of the story. Set before Vatican Council II, the story reads as if it is happening in Rural America today. The greatest weakness of the story is how Father Urban, a worldly man, a very bright, maybe even brilliant man can make so many mistakes when reading and interacting with people. An example is letting himself be trapped on an island with a young naked single woman in the chapter Belleisle.

Powers was a master with the pen. This novel, his first, was really a collection of continuous short stories, some previously published and some not. What Powers excelled at was his characters, and maybe because he wrote short stories, the characters needed to be complete. There are not a lot of extraneous descriptions in the novel. What drives it is the characters and the dialogue. There is a modern movement in literature called minimalism. Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, is considered the master of the style and creator of the format - books that read more like screen plays and cut from story to story or segment to segment. That is the style that Powers has in this book long before there was a name for it. Any maybe that is the best way to sum up this novel. It is a collection of stories set in and around Chicago, the home of the Clementines, or rural Minnesota and their mission outpost there. But it is also a collection of segments in Urban's life, each vignette ending with a poignant reflection on Urban or the world he lived in.

(First written for RS398 - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers.)

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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