Saturday 19 December 2009

Wheat That Springeth Green J.F. Powers

Wheat that Springeth Green by J.F. Powers, Image Books, The New York review of Books, New York, NY, 2000 (First published in 1988). This novel follows a young man through life, from early years growing up in an urban parish through to the priesthood and on into life in the ministry. It is a story told in three parts, but as a series of vignettes. Powers was a short story writer and even though both his novels won awards, they are really a collection of short stories, woven together.

Chapter 6 in this novel, Out in the World, was previously published in the New Yorker as The Warm Sand. A different variation on that same story appeared in the collection The Substance of Things Hoped For: Short Fiction By modern Catholic Authors and was my introduction to Powers' work. When I first read the story, I was drawn in by Joe's desire to be more religious, to wear a hair shirt, to use a prei-dieu, (and I have one to this day), and by his keen desire to serve the church and do so with integrity. Yet, what happens is, the day-to-day work of running a parish erodes his spiritual aspirations to the point that he is just doing the business of running a church. This is a man most of us can relate to; we desire to do good, to choose what is best, but often get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent.

Other parts of this book were previously published as short stories also, both more than once. Chapter 10 of the book Good News, was published in the New Yorker and also the collection of short stories Look How The Fish Live. And chapters 16-18 in the novel, Priestly Fellowship, were also published in both of those publications previously.

The three parts of this story or movements are first, from youth to a curate to his first church as rector. The second is his middle years of ministry, and t
he third act, three independent stories about later in life. These three stories have an unusual quality about them. In some ways they feel like the three teaching lessons tacked onto the end of Daniel in the Deuterocanonical version - three separate stories each told with a specific purpose and meaning. These three have more humor than the rest of the book, almost as if Powers wanted to lighten the load at the end of the story for the readers.

The lasting power of this story is that Joe is everyman, in that he has beliefs and he desires to live up to those beliefs. Yet he ends up settling for something far below his original goals. I know that I and many men my age feel the same way; we are not where we expected to be, or doing what we expected to be doing with our lives, either in ministry or out. As such, the story's impact is that even though it is about a priest living and working in the ministry, it can serve as a mirror for all of us who read it, thus causing us to remember our original goals and aspirations and maybe inspiring us to live up to them. This is accomplished primarily by how well-written Joe is as a character and how well-written the novel is. This story was the culmination of Powers' Literary output. Some of these stories have undergone years of revisions and were crafted together into the novel we have now. Powers shaped and reshaped the stories, individually and collectively, to give us this masterpiece presented in three movements.

(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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