''The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.'' (J.M. Barrie). So J.F. Powers prefaces his Morte D'Urban
, winner of the 1963 National Book Award. His hero, Father Urban, is an ambitious Catholic priest destined for disappointment among his fellow Clementines, known to labor ''under the curse of mediocrity.'' Still, the good (though often morally ambiguous) Father, makes his way, turning every setback to profit -- for his parishioners, for the diocese, for himself, and of course, for the glory of God. Powers' dry wit and spare use of language make for hilarious observation, as in his description of Monsignor Renton: ''[He] talked like a drunken curate. One moment it was, 'God is not mocked,' and the next moment it was 'Your ass is out.''' Powers' genius is his ability to surprise and deliver the expected simultaneously. I wonder what story he intended to write in the life (or is it death?) of Father Urban. What emerges is a disarming truth: eventually, we get exactly what we want.
An Eighth Day View:
Winner of The 1963 National Book Award for Fiction.
The hero of J.F. Powers's comic masterpiece is Father Urban, a man of the cloth who is also a man of the world. Charming, with an expansive vision of the spiritual life and a high tolerance for moral ambiguity, Urban enjoys a national reputation as a speaker on the religious circuit and has big plans for the future. But then the provincial head of his dowdy religious order banishes him to a retreat house in the Minnesota hinterlands. Father Urban soon bounces back, carrying God's word with undaunted enthusiasm through the golf courses, fishing lodges, and backyard barbecues of his new turf. Yet even as he triumphs his tribulations mount, and in the end his greatest success proves a setback from which he cannot recover.
First published in 1962, " Morte D'Urban" has been praised by writers as various as Gore Vidal, William Gass, Mary Gordon, and Philip Roth. This beautifully observed, often hilarious tale of a most unlikely Knight of Faith is among the finest achievements of an author whose singular vision assures him a permanent place in American literature.