J. F. Powers is a seriously humorous Roman Catholic writer in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and Walker Percy, though he has not achieved the impact of these writers. Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956) are short-story collections, as is Look How the Fish Live (1975). Morte D’Urban (1962), his first novel, captured the National Book Award, and Wheat That Springeth Green was nominated for that prize. Matthew Guinti reports that while Powers is widely reckoned to be an “important” American writer, his limited output has meant that he has been honored more among other writers than by the general public. Wheat That Springeth Green met with such enthusiasm, however, that perhaps Powers’ days of obscurity are past. Paraphrasing a line from the novel, reviewer Amy Edith Johnson proclaims that in Wheat That Springeth Green, “J. F. Powers has made sanctity as attractive as sex to the common reader.” Short of salvation itself, this surely is the very most a Christian writer could hope for!
Powers’ title is taken from the hymn, “Now the Green Blade Riseth,” based on a French medieval carol. The song celebrates the mystery of life emergent from buried grain. Its final lines are “Love lives again that with the dead has been:/ Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.” Behind the song itself is the text of John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Both song and scripture are agricultural, cyclical, and natural in ways that the novel is not. Indeed, in one of the book’s few evocations of the natural world, Joe Hackett is faulted by Father Felix for sodding over a flower garden. Its principle settings are indoors—in Joe’s rectory, before the television, in the mall, in bars, at retreat houses. Rarely does the action take place in church. So Powers’ title at first functions as an enigma. The song would have us believe that love is the theme of the novel. But what love? The love of Christ for His church? The love of priest for vocation? The reader does not know. Powers thus leaves the reader unbalanced, guessing—and therefore in a proper frame of mind to be presented to his remarkable antihero, Joe Hackett.
Imbalance also characterizes the very structure of the novel. Part 1 takes the reader from Joe’s boyhood through his seminary days, first assistanceship, and seven years as a bureaucrat at Archdiocesan Charities. Part 2, while constituting almost two-thirds of the whole, treats a period from April to September of 1968. Part 3, a mere sixteen pages, covers September, October, and November of this same year. This asymmetry is not relieved by being projected against the stabilizing patterns of presidential politics or the church year. Joe follows in a disengaged way the rise of Eugene McCarthy and the tumult at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Vietnam briefly comes into play when Joe is called upon to give draft counseling, but this incident is unimportant in the overall economy of the work. As for the church year, all the action of part 2 is set in the unspectacular season of Pentecost; in any case, Joe seems disinclined to consider the nourishing mysteries of Christian time.
What then orders the time of the novel? As befits a Catholic work, it is the time of spiritual development, the time required for passing from mere existence into maturity and even sainthood. Here the operative categories are contemplation and action, or—since this is also a fiercely modern and comic novel—distraction and inaction. Also, since Joe’s world is constantly being focused and ordered by the schedule of the Minnesota Twins, it may be that baseball imparts the deepest chronological rhythm in the book. It certainly provides its central theme: the perils of an athletic interpretation of spiritual growth.
As it happens, Joe comes late to baseball. As a well-to-do sophomore track star, he leads his team to victory over a hated Catholic-league rival. The following summer, thinking about the priesthood (irregularly reading Butler’s Lives of the Saints, regularly reading The Sporting News), Joe follows Saint Augustine’s example and experiments with sexual sin: “It showed Joe what the world was like, what he’d be up against if he became a priest.” He proves himself a prodigious sexual athlete, until venereal disease catches him.
In seminary, Joe consistently elects the way of spiritual hardihood, acquires a hair shirt, and challenges his classmates in feats of self-denial and personal holiness. His little coterie of followers gradually deserts him, worn out with his rigorism and priggishness. Eventually, even his superiors question Joe’s “singular” attempt “to go all the way, . . . get in touch with God directly, to think that he could bypass humanity.” The limits of his sanctity are constantly placed in view by Powers. Squeamish and fastidious, Joe must constantly wash his hair shirt. He worries...