National Book Award Winners, part 15: 1962’s Morte d’Urban, by J.F. Powers

4 Dec

(Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so you don’t have to) 

1.

In 1963, J.F. Powers won the national book award for his wry, droll novel of manners, Morte d’Urban. It’s a fascinating, quite funny novel that manages to tell a very small story with precision and wit. It’s also an odd winner of the top award, out of sync with the early sixties. Safe, calm, and decent, Morte d’Urban has an abiding patience with society, social norms and conventions.

Powers beat out Thomas Berger for Reinhardt in Love; Vladimir Nabakov for Pale Fire; Katherine Anne Porter for Ship of Fools; Kurt Vonnegut for his uncharacteristic but very fine Mother Night; and James Baldwin for Another Country. Fine novels[1] all, but taking a peak at the underbelly of American fiction reveals fissures in the poetic realism that defined many of the novels of the 1950s.

Massive changes—many of them roiling about in the sub-basement of the American subconscious for a long time—exploded into American culture in the 1960s.

Drug culture entered fiction and our novels fractured. Mind-altering drugs were seeping into mainstream culture. The Beat writers had probed drug culture in the 1950s—the best of these is probably Burrough’s lean, taut Junky—but heroine and marijuana were replaced with LSD and speed. The objective concept of reality was loosened. Synapses popped. Time sped up.

The atom bomb and the resulting arms race left our artists with the undeniable fact that we had the capacity for the firs time in recorded history to destroy the world. Mankind was conscious of its own end. The Dadaists were right; existence was such a cruel joke absurdity was the only rational response. The heroics of WWII were erased by the nightmarish surreality of Korea and Vietnam.

Youth culture appeared overnight. Teenagers became major consumers of culture. Music and movies and yes, books too began to bend toward their economic gravity.

And new technology, primitive by today’s standards, was progressing at an astonishing rate. Reality was perhaps one of many cascading virtual worlds. Philip K. Dick and the early cyberpunk authors were just around the corner.

These four distinct strands of American popular culture—the end of history, the possibility of altered consciousness, the ascendancy of youth culture and the advent of thinking machines—changed our society into something weirder, more histrionic, more subjective. The 1960s became the decade capable of producing Hello, Dolly!, 2001 and Dr. Strangelove all within a few years of each other. The decade began with white-washed ennui and ended with cosmic discontent. The decade began with the bored malaise of The Moviegoer and ended with the super-charged ire of Slaughterhouse Five.

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, his stream of consciousness sex romp through Paris, was published in 1961 and promptly declared obscene. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict. The boundaries of “good taste” were eroding. Miller’s wonderfully obscene novel broke open the floodgates.

So the novels published in 1962 that weren’t nominated for any awards?

William Burroughs published another weirdo mindfuck The Ticket that Exploded. Richard Stark released his no-frills tough as shit criminal revenge story, The Hunter. Anthony Burgess, from across the pond, jacked into the future with his sordid, ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange. J.G. Ballard, also from England, published another of his end of the world novels, The Drowned World. Shirley Jackson published her eerie, unsettling little novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And 1962 is also the year Philip K. Dick released The Man in the High Castle, his fascinating and brilliant alternative history that is as touching as it is insane. Fiction was getting wilder, meaner, stranger.

2.

Back to J.F. Powers, an author writing not just from a different decade but with the values of a different century.

Powers was a very fine Irish-American short story writer. He wrote small, polished gems, in a similar vein as Alice Munro and William Trevor, although not as strong as either. (Munro can break your heart in a sentence, Trevor in a page; Powers has their writerly craft but is a step down from their storytelling ability.) He belonged to a quieter, calmer generation of writers. He seemed unruffled by the unraveling society around him.

He was all but forgotten and then NYRB released both this novel and his collected short stories. I’m not sure which is better.

Morte d’Urban follows the rise and fall and rise again of a mid-level priest named Father Urban at an old monastic order.

Powers's droll, wry novel of priestly impatience and exasperation.

Powers’s droll, wry novel of priestly impatience and exasperation.

Father Urban is a priest from Chicago who, through a series of unseen faux pas, has been exiled to a rural parish in Minnesota. He’s ambitious, arrogant and a great speaker, but he’s confused his ambitions with sophistication and thus rubs his fellow priests the wrong way. He’s aware of his gifts but unaware of his faults, and the disconnect between how he sees himself and how others see him is a great source of the novel’s charm, and an engine for much of the comedy.

Urban scrambles around Minnesota for much of the novel. There are problems, episodes, little asides. He tries to help the son of a rich benefactress start a publishing company. He builds a golf course. He tries to get a church built. He paints walls, fixes chairs, scowls, feels sorry for himself. There are two climactic scenes of a sort, both of them quite good, one involving a golf game with a bishop and the other a fishing expedition with a cruel financial backer to Urban’s priestly order.

The book is populated mostly with priests. Strangely, the episodes don’t deal with challenges to Urban’s faith—everyone’s Catholicism is presented as a given—and only one offers up a temptation of the flesh. Most of the novel deals with Urban’s increasing dissatisfaction with the simple-minded pettiness of his fellow men of the cloth.

The first 100 pages are great, humming with an exasperated, comic glow. Here’s an example of Urban struggling with his superior, a priest named Wilf, over the handiwork being done at the rectory. Wilf has been assigning various chores to the other priests and Urban feels that the work is often redundant, ill-conceived and beneath him. This scene reads like it came straight out of a Charles Portis novel, high praise indeed:

 

“We can do one of two things,” Wilf said. “We can apply the mahogany varnish you see in those cans over there—it’s the quick-drying type, three or four hours at the outside. That was my original plan, but I’ve since been thinking. . . .”

Everybody stood by, waiting to hear the alternative.

“Why not sand the floor? And then, after we finish off this wall, we can apply a light stain, and a dressing of some kind—perhaps beeswax. I like that idea, and I think Father Boniface would.”

At this, Brother Harold nodded.

“If we do that, we’ll have a floor we can really be proud of.”

“Let me understand you,” said Father Urban.

“Yes?”  said Wilf, with a laugh—as if he didn’t see what was so difficult to understand. “Oh, I can return the varnish for credit, it that’s what’s bothering you, Father. Or we can keep it and use it elsewhere—where it won’t be so noticeable.”

“That isn’t what bothers me,” Father Urban said. “Don’t you need a machine of some kind for sanding a floor?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Do it by hand, you mean?”

“Why not? It isn’t as if there were only one or two of us.”

Father Urban had nothing to say to this, and the other two, of course, had nothing to say at all.

“You can rent machines,” Wilf said. “But there’s more to it than that. This paint may look dry, but it really isn’t. It takes paint months to dry—to really dry. You bring in a sander, and kick up a lot of dust, and the walls and ceiling would pick it all up—and then where would we be?”

“God, I don’t know,” said Father Urban. “But I’m for varnishing the floor.”

“You don’t see so much varnish nowadays. You take the floors in your nice new home, they’re not varnished. You just have the natural beauty of the wood.”

“Yes, but are you sure we’ve got the wood for it?”

Wilf stared down at the old floor, as did the others.

“What is this stuff anyway?” said Father Urban. It looked like the kind of wood he’d seen on back porches.

“It’s fir.”

“Is that what they’re using in these new homes?”

“Mostly they’re using oak and maple.”

“Not fir?”

“No.”

“Well, they you are.”

“I was just thinking it would look better some other way.”

 And so on, like a scene from the best Wes Anderson movie never made. I was delighted by the novel, giggling at Urban’s exasperation and the tiny little problems he navigates. But the light, comic tone doesn’t last; the novel turns into something else, not tragedy exactly, but a kind of loose, unromantic melodrama. Too many characters crowd into the storylines, and there’s no main narrative (or symbolic, for that matter) thrust for the reader to stick with. Powers’s subtlety becomes too subtle; there’s little danger, menace, or worry. The humor runs dry. (And the metaphorical layers don’t quite work, beginning with all the references to Mallory’s Arthur.)

Urban gets sick a bit near the end, he has headaches and it’s clear Powers is implying that he’s deteriorating from some brain condition, but the novel isn’t a tragedy, and the last hundred pages aren’t particularly funny either. It ends up as a slight drama, I suppose, never fulfilling the comedic promise of those first 100 pages. I would recommend it to hardcore readers of literature, and to fans of light comedy, but to others I would say, move along.

Good but not great.

 

 


[1] Pale Fire is a wild card amongst wild cards, a fake exploration of a fake poem with fake autobiographical asides amidst the fake exegesis. Fans love it; I’m on the fence.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: