Father Urban turned 60 last year. Which is to say that 2022 brought the 60th anniversary of publication of J.F. Powers’ 1962 novel about a priest, “Morte d’Urban.” A year later, the book received the prestigious National Book Award for fiction.
By the measure of literary prizes, that was truly a golden age for American Catholic fiction. Besides “Morte d’Urban,” the list includes: Edwin O’Connor’s “The Edge of Sadness,” a novel about priestly life and the complexities of relationships in Irish-American families, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962; Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” an existentialist anomie set against the background of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, which won a National Book Award in 1962; and (posthumously) Flannery O’Connor’s collected short stories, Southern Gothic morality tales leavened with Thomistic theology, which won a National Book Award in 1972.
Reputation-wise, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor — especially she — are still going strong, Edwin O’Connor has — unfortunately — largely sunk from view, while such attention as Powers still receives is due largely to New York Review of Books Classics, a publishing line that has kept his limited literary output in print.
In his day, Powers was best known for New Yorker-style short stories, among them minor classics like “Lions, Harts, and Leaping Does” and “The Presence of Grace.” His second novel, “Wheat That Springeth Green,” appearing 26 years after “Urban,” has stretches of the old brilliance, but falls flat on the whole. That leaves “Morte d’Urban” — and it’s a dandy.
The title is a whimsical reference to “Morte d’Arthur,” a 15th-century compilation of tales about King Arthur and his knights by Sir Thomas Malory, and parts of the novel are loosely patterned on Malory. The device does no harm, but neither does it add much. Categorizing the story is not so easy. To call it gentle satire is accurate as far as it goes, but behind the kidding lies a probing account of a priest’s spiritual growth despite himself.
At the center of the novel is Father Urban Roche, a 50-something member of the Order of Saint Clement — the Clementines, for short. (Other religious communities, rivals of the Clementines, include the Dolomites and the Dalmatians). Unlike most of his brothers in religion — with few exceptions gentle, unambitious souls — Father Urban stands out as a knock-’em-dead preacher with a flair for cultivating well-heeled donors and no end of creative schemes for pulling the Clementines out of ruts they’re excessively comfortable in.
In all-too-typical fashion, his superior rewards this exceptional man by assigning him to a floundering retreat house in the wilds of northern Minnesota. Discouraged at first, Urban rallies and takes up the situation as a challenge to his ingenuity in making something of the place. Most of the story traces the sometimes devious paths he treads to bring that about.
Powers writes in a simple but elegant style enlivened by quick humorous thrusts. Of clergy cold-shouldering newcomers to the diocese: “…welcoming them with all the lukewarmness at their command.” Of a wealthy, bad-tempered old woman: “The only light in the room came from the [TV] sets, a dead light, so that Mrs. Thwaites’s face showed up like a photographic negative: a little old woman with the face of a baby bird, all eyes and beak, but with a full head of bobbed white hair. One hand was wrapped in black rosary beads the size of cranberries, and the other gripped the remote control. … The temperature was equatorial.”
In the end, Urban succeeds. Or does he fail? Or does he succeed by failing? Sixty years later, we need a “Morte d’Urban” for our times.