Review: Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

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Published in 1962, Morte D’Urban is, in 2019, a pretty unsexy reading prospect. It concerns itself with Roman Catholic Priests. In Minnesota. In the 50s. Morte D’Urban should be a tough sell, and yet I read it in a compulsive rush, finishing the entire novel in less than a week.

Morte D’Urban chronicles a turbulent time in the life of Father Urban, a charismatic Catholic priest walking finely the line between ambitious, (relatively) progressive modern priest and Joel Osteen-esque huckster. Father Urban belongs to the Order of St. Clement, an obscure religious order terminal with mediocrity. Burdened by inertia in the upper ranks and boredom in the lower, the Order is a virtual non-entity in the guilded clockwork of the Roman Catholic Church. Urban, charismatic and ambitious, wants to change that: when we first meet him in Chicago, he’s been traveling, giving guest sermons at churches all over the region, speechifying, shmoozing, networking; hoping to gouge out, through sheer indefatigable enthusiasm, a higher place in the world for the Order and, yes, also for himself. But then Urban, on the cusp of triumph after bagging a major benefactor in the form of millionaire Billy Cosgrove, is sent by a jealous Father Provincial to a Minnesota backwater called Duesterhaus.

Powers’s depiction of Duesterhaus, both on a municipal and a personal level, is, initially, scathing. Pre-decrepit in that frigid way particular to small American towns, forgotten by the distant, metastasizing suburbs and distanter cities, Duesterhaus is dead; there’s one decent restaurant (located in the lone hotel), one train station, and just one taxi, owned and driven by the hardware store owner. The Order’s digs are dire as well: a decrepit mansion on the outskirts of Duesterhaus, its barn was the site of a grisly murder; the mansion itself became a poorhouse and then a sanitarium before it was acquired by the Clementines.

The opening chapters setting up Urban’s predicament also highlight one of the first major pleasures in book: its depiction of bureaucracy. Throughout the novel Powers shows Urban attempting to navigate an ecclesiastical minefield of petty, esoteric church politics. Every priest has a hobbyhorse and an axe to grind, and all the high-ranking monsignors nurtures inexplicable grudges about each other or capable underlings. The hoops Urban jumps through to get anything done are as dramatic as the power struggles that people (wrongly) imagine Game of Thrones to have, albeit on a more mundane scale; but the scope of the novel, filtered through the central consciousness and concerns of Father, give the nearly nonsensical wranglings a grandeur and drama that fuel propulsive reading; a late scene on a golf course has all the desperation and vertiginous stakes of a sword fight between mythic heroes.

For a goodly portion of the book Morte D’Urban comes across as a satire of small town America, and the strange, small-minded people you find there; there’s a dark, knowing lilt to Power’s prose that gives its humor an artistic edge but the tone is still fundamentally pleasant. It’s also genuinely funny. The most hilarious stretch occurs when we meet Father Wilf, rector of the Clementine outpost in Duesterhaus: a cheap, unselfconsciously pedantic know-it-all, Father Wilf is the kind of person who seems to have a single fact about every topic and is unable not to deliver that fact whenever the subject is brought up: an innocent, abominable pest. I laughed out loud at parts, and I don’t usually laugh much when reading.

There won’t be many illustrative quotes from Morte D’Urban, because it is, both in its comic and tragic effects, a novel of accretion: the prose is patient, rarely poetic, workmanlike in a distinguished way; Powers builds scenes and characters line by line, imbuing all with a solidity and convincingness that I found utterly compelling in its faithfulness to life; if, like me, you’re at all concerned with the ability of fiction to generate not just a world, but our world, then Morte D’Urban should appeal to you. Powers rarely lavishes many words on descriptive scenes, but he has a masterly grasp of Midwestern scenery, hitting on its essential character in a clean, compressed way:

“Chester stayed in the boat, bailing it out with a rusty coffee can, which, scraping the ribbed bottom and swallowing the dirty water, made a melancholy sound. The sun was leaving for the day, and when that happened that far north in September, there wasn’t much between you and the night. The lake, a light red wine before, was now black stout, and the air was suddenly dank.”

Jonathan Yardley says that Morte D’Urban, actually, is the great American novel of the workplace. I can see it. Urban’s unflagging devotion to his cause (and again, whether that cause is the Order, Christianity in general, or his own advancement is left somewhat up to interpretation) reflects classic American brain poison about being a Hard Worker and Getting Your Due. And for a long time you might think that Urban’s constant frustrations and the uphill battle he wages in inhospitable semi-rural Minnesota are set up just for gentle laughs, and will ultimately be rewarded.

Whether they are or not I won’t say, but as the novel progresses, events transpire and the novel metamorphoses into something different, darker. It becomes clear, even as the morality and purpose murkify, that there is a limit even to Urban’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. In this way the depiction of the American Drive Forward, if it was ever intended as such, exposes that drive as hollow, potentially damaging. The last five chapters are the strongest in the book and increasingly strange, almost mystic, oblique as a winter lake obscured by driving snow. The ambiguities it builds into the plot are masterful, so subtle that you can, in fact, miss them; so subtle that you can almost second-guess whether they’re there at all.

(They’re there).

A note on the subject matter: moral conservativism, religiosity, the Roman Catholic Church, the ignorance and defensive mediocrity endemic to America but particularly the American Midwest: in 2019, these are all known elements of incipient fascism and tools of control. Morte D’Urban concerns itself with a Catholic priest in Minnesota in the 50s; Father Urban cuts a striking, often sympathetic figure, but he’s also a fundamentally conservative man working in and for a fundamentally conservative system, amongst fundamentally conservative people, espousing fundamentally conservative values.

That’s a problem in this book, without a doubt. For some, the nonjudgmental, possibly even positive depiction of the Catholic Church may be a terminal turn off. In that way Morte D’Urbam reminds me of Silence by Shusaku Endo, another book I loved that concerned itself with subjects I do not love. I reconcile it thus: Morte D’Urban’s fundamental drive is to depict reality, not the Church; its focus is on revealing the desperate boring beauty of life as it is lived, to deliver an ironic delineation of the limits of our minds and hearts, to capture also the weird fluking mystery of being alive and striving and unhappy.

Powers was a Catholic, and obviously fixated on the Catholic world as a theme, and so the characters in his books are Catholics and hold Catholic views (although from what I understand he wasn’t entirely happy with the idea of being labeled a “Catholic Writer”); but the book itself doesn’t espouse an inherently (or at least exclusively) Catholic philosophy even if its characters do. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect reconciliation, and won’t be enough for many would-be readers, I’m sure; but it was enough for me.

So I finished Morte D’Urban and felt completely satisfied with it, nourished by its craft and quiet complexity. But I kept wondering if I would recommend it – or, more to the point, to whom the fuck would I recommend it to? There’s nothing sexy about this book, nothing immediately prepossessing; I loved the comic tone of the first half, loved the political maneuvering, the dramatization of petty bureaucracy, and I really loved the darker, ambiguous second half, but suffice to say I think a lot of folks will have a hard time looking past the inherent dowdiness of the subject matter and the surface-level blandness of the prose. Again, Powers is a gifted writer, but his mastery comes less from any one individual sentence than in the accretion and arrangement of all of them, so that unless you’re tuned in to this novel’s particular frequency it may fall entirely flat for you.

Or maybe not. Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963 after all, beating out stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, perhaps its polar opposite in terms of execution. That’s a book that’s essentially a game, bedizened by rhinestone-encrusted prose that catches a lot of light but doesn’t illuminate much of anything; whereas Morte D’Urban, seemingly staid, is in fact the real deal, the true thing, an object of undeniable, if sometimes inscrutable or hard-to-articulate, maybe even hard to see, beauty. If anything about this review piqued your interest, pick up the book and give it a try. Maybe it’s for you. Maybe it’s for nearly everybody.

If you decide to buy Morte D’Urban on the strength of this review, please get it from an independent bookseller. It’s also available direct from NYRB Classics, who have kept it in print since 2000.

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