By J.F. Powers
Doubleday. 336p. $4.50
Some ten years ago, fans of J.F. Powers were told that this master of the short story was engaged in writing a novel. The years went by—no novel. Then a series of short stories about a Father Urban began to appear in the New Yorker, Esquire and the Critic. Suspicions seemed to he confirmed: Mr. Powers had discovered that he couldn’t work in the longer form and was returning to the short story. Now it turns out that these self-contained stories were parts of the novel Mr. Powers was writing.
Father Urban is a highly successful preacher and fundraiser for a mythical order of priests known as the Clementines. Either out of animosity or out of shortsightedness, the Provincial removes this Babbitt of the rabat from the circuit, and assigns him to a retreat house that the Clementines are trying to start on a run-down farm in Minnesota. The novel recounts the politicking and jockeying for position that Father Urban has to engage in—with the members of his order, with the bishop, the diocesan priests, and assorted members of the laity, Catholic and non-Catholic. His efforts to establish himself and his order in this uncongenial rural community involve him in a number of delicate situations that threaten to become too much even for this adept operator. Eventually a measure of success comes, but with the success an awakening, too. Ironically—and perhaps symbolically—the awakening comes after Father Urban has been knocked unconscious by a golf ball hit by the bishop.
Admirers of Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber and Muriel Spark will revel in this book. Here is the same kind of dish—a mélange of zany, fallible characters who command our interest without straining our credulity, trivial incidents that marvelously illumine a whole corner of human life, and low-keyed, ironic humor that can suddenly plunge the reader into spasms of lunatic laughter.
If there were any doubt in anyone’s mind that J.F. Powers deserved a place in the front rank of contemporary American fiction writers, this first novel will once and for all dispel it.
Edward P.J. Corbett