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'Morte d'Urban': Our Great Workplace Saga

By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge so succinctly (and accurately) put it, so it's surprising and disappointing that business is the subject of so little serious American fiction. Boardroom drama and similar high-level high jinks are often to be found in popular fiction, but by and large our ostensibly literary writers have looked down their noses at workaday life, apparently finding it unworthy of their finely-tuned sensibilities.

Thus it's both revealing and ironic that one of the few genuinely good American novels about business isn't about "business" at all, but about the Roman Catholic Church. J.F. Powers's "Morte d'Urban," first published in 1962 (it won the National Book Award the following year), can be read in any number of ways, but reading it now for the fourth time I am struck more sharply than ever before by how Powers turns this story of a go-getter priest into a metaphor for the world of business. It's a much better novel than Sinclair Lewis's far more famous "Babbitt": subtler, wittier and much more elegantly written.

I read "Morte d'Urban" not long after it won the NBA; in those years that prize still occasionally went to books that deserved it -- Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" -- and I completely agreed with the judges' decision. I read it again a few years later for a discussion group I led on religious issues in contemporary fiction, then a third time purely for pleasure. Now, 4 1/2 decades after that first reading, I'm as convinced as ever that the oblivion into which it seems to have sunk is inexplicable and wholly undeserved.

Oblivion, though, was a condition all too familiar to Powers during his lifetime. Between his birth in Illinois in 1917 and his death 81 years later, he published only four other books: three collections of short stories and a second novel, "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988). His short stories appeared in various places, from the Catholic Worker to the New Yorker, and, though widely admired by the literati, found him relatively few readers. He spent much of his time in Ireland and frequently taught at St. John's University in Minnesota, the state that is the setting of "Morte d'Urban" and much of his other work. In a wry, admiring tribute to Powers after his death in 1999, published in the New Criterion, John Derbyshire called him "the patron saint of slow writers," and quoted his daughter Katherine: "He had powers of procrastination that went far beyond the merely amateur."

Powers wrote about many subjects, but the Catholic Church was his chief one. His interest in it may well have been more psychological and sociological -- "Though religious by instinct," Derbyshire wrote, "Powers does not seem to have been deeply pious" -- and the affection with which he viewed the church always was sharpened by the satirist's edge. Certainly he was by no stretch of the imagination a "Catholic writer" in the sense that Flannery O'Connor or Graham Greene was; though matters of theology crop up from time in "Morte d'Urban," they are scarcely the novel's principal concern.

Its protagonist, Father Urban of the Order of St. Clement, is one of the great characters in American fiction. He is a hustler, "an operator," but unlike George Babbitt he is also a complex and deeply sympathetic human being. He is 54 years old, "tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye." As the novel opens he is working out of the Clementines' decidedly modest office in Chicago, traveling the rubber-chicken circuit to boost the order. Audiences love him for his forceful speeches and infectious glad-handing, but this doesn't translate into much for the Clementines, who exist under "a cloak of incompetence." Powers writes:

"It seemed to him that the Order of St. Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning. In Europe, the Clementines hadn't (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn't ever really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about -- one saint (the Holy Founder) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world."

Apart from his traveling and lecturing, Father Urban's main contribution to the order has been to reel in a big fish named Billy Cosgrove, a Chicago businessman with a taste for golf, sailing and whiskey who decides that Urban is a regular guy in a turned-around collar and by way of rewarding him for this becomes the order's biggest benefactor. This does not sit well with some higher in the order, notably Father Boniface, the head of the Chicago office, who sees Urban as a rival and, in a classic office-politics maneuver, exiles him to "the newest white elephant, the new foundation . . . near Duesterhaus, Minnesota," so far from Billy Cosgrove and the good life as to be on another planet.

Urban is appalled, but he is also a good priest: He does what he is told to do. So he packs off and moves to Duesterhaus, "a one-stoplight town" where "the main street was a state highway" and "the drugstore was the bus station." There he falls in with two hapless priests -- the rector, Father Wilfrid, and Father John -- as well as the novitiate, Brother Harold, and almost immediately finds that priestly duties are low on Father Wilfrid's list of priorities. What he wants to do is to get the tatterdemalion main building into shape so that it can be used as a retreat for priests and laymen, perhaps with profitable results. So Urban is put to work "as a common laborer." Why, Urban soon asks himself, "had he been cast into outer darkness, thrown among fools and failures?"

Then a bit of a break comes his way. The priest at a nearby church -- a real church, with a real congregation -- goes off for a while and Urban is asked to stand in for him. With the amiable but indecisive Father Phil out of the way, Urban has room to operate, and, "Suddenly St. Monica's was a busy, happy rectory." He's there for about a month and a half, and though he doesn't exactly work miracles, he gives the church a big boost, and he gets one himself: "the deep satisfaction there was in doing the work of a parish priest -- his daily Mass meant even more to him at St. Monica's." Yes, he's guilty as charged of being "something of a showboat," but he's also a priest to the core, and the showboating is almost always done in the service of the priesthood.

He returns to Duesterhaus recharged and full of plans. An attractive spread of farmland next door comes on the market, and Urban makes his move. This involves Billy Cosgrove once again, as well as a meddlesome, domineering bishop who is the church's local CEO. For those who do not yet know the rest of the tale, and whom I hope to lure into reading it, I will keep the rest of it in confidence, but suffice it to say that Urban is awarded a great triumph that, when he finally receives it, is emptier than he could have imagined, and he learns that venturing out into the real world can have painful consequences.

All of this is most rewardingly seen as a microcosm of American business, with its suffocating layers of bureaucracy and its bitter, silly rivalries. Observing the Clementines at work, "For the life of him, Father Urban couldn't see how the Catholic Church (among large corporations) could be rated second only to Standard Oil in efficiency, as Time had reported a few years back." Laboring away with Father Wilfrid, Urban sees things for what they are:

"A good part of his working day was spent in wandering back and forth between the lavatory and the job. Yes, he knew what he was, a disgruntled employee blowing himself to a bit of company time, but he didn't care, and he didn't give the boss quite enough cause to complain. However, it got so that the employee knew what to expect if, in his journeys to and from the lavatory, he paused too long at a window for a look at the outside world. He knew that the boss would soon come along and offer him a cigarette -- there was no use trying to smoke a cigar if you did the kind of work they did -- and then a light. There they'd be, then, just a couple of average guys such as they saw in the evening on television, taking their well-earned break."

In the end, then, "Morte d'Urban" isn't just about a Catholic priest and the Catholic Church, it's about the American workplace. If there's a better novel about that subject, I don't know what it is; certainly Joseph Heller's ambitious but numbing "Something Happened" falls far short of it. That "Morte d'Urban" is still in print is thanks to New York Review Books Classics, which also has in print "Wheat That Springeth Green" and "The Stories of J.F. Powers." These are books that matter, and keeping them alive -- in the face of general indifference to Powers's work -- is a genuine service to American literature.

"Morte d'Urban" is available in a New York Review Books Classics paperback ($12.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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