Earthly Powers is concerned on several levels with questions of good and evil. Kenneth Toomey, the protagonist, is a commercially successful, but not artistically outstanding, writer who views life cynically and pessimistically. His homosexuality early cut him off from his family, church, and country. Juxtaposed to him in the novel is Carlo Campanati, a priest who seeks reform, the adopted son of an affluent Italian family. He is as optimistic as Kenneth is pessimistic.
The novel opens on Kenneth Toomey’s eighty-first birthday. Toomey is in bed with a young boy as his servant comes to tell him that the Archbishop of Malta has come to see him. Toomey gathers himself together and finds that the Archbishop has called to inquire of him about a miraculous cure he once witnessed Carlo Campanati perform in Chicago. Campanati, a friend of long standing, had risen through the priesthood to become Archbishop of Milan and was finally to be made Pope Gregory XVII. Now he has died, and a movement for his canonization is afoot. Crucial to this canonization is proof that he has performed a miracle, which Toomey presumably can verify.
The rest of the novel is a recollection that takes one through the exciting literary world of the period from shortly after 1900 up to the 1970’s. Burgess mixes fact with fancy, fictitious characters with real ones. His protagonist is a composite of W. Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward, although the characterization more closely resembles Maugham than Coward. Carlo is modeled after Pope John XXIII.
Kenneth’s reminiscence takes one through his life and through his early experiences in coping with his own homosexuality. As a young writer, he tells his teenage sister, Hortense, of his sexual orientation, and through her, his mother learns of it. She writes to Toomey expressing her hurt and disapproval.
Toomey confesses his sexual orientation to a priest, who chastises him, closing another door to the sensitive young man. Rodney Selkirk, an actor in one of Toomey’s light farces that is playing in London, becomes Toomey’s lover. Rodney’s wife, accompanied by two police officers, breaks into the bedroom where the two lovers are together, and Toomey is arrested. He flees England before the trial, fearing a repetition of the Oscar Wilde scandal of the 1890’s....
(The entire section is 953 words.)