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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.

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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. He cannot return to his native land for many years.

Meanwhile, both Rodney Selkirk and Toomey’s mother die in the influenza epidemic of 1917-1918. When Toomey’s father, a physician, remarries, Kenneth’s sister Hortense comes to Paris to stay with him. She meets her brother’s friend, Domenico Campanati, shortly after her arrival and promptly seduces him. Within the year, the two are married on the Campanati estate outside Milan, and five years later become the parents of twins, John and Ann.

It is through Domenico that Kenneth meets Carlo, then a parish priest. He also comes to know of the Campanati’s brother Raffaele, a successful importer of Italian food, who lives in Chicago and whose death is to figure significantly in the novel and its outcome.

Kenneth wanders in various places, going to Malaya at his publisher’s suggestion, then to the United States. In Malaya, he becomes close friends with Dr. Philip Shawcross, a lonely Briton who dies presumably from having a curse put on him. This death deeply affects Kenneth. He wanders, finally getting to Chicago just when Raffaele is murdered by the mob. His brother Carlo rushes to his bedside, which Kenneth also attends, but he gets there too late. Bereft, he goes into a children’s ward, where he finds an adolescent boy, Godfrey Manning, near death from tuberculosis.

Carlo, much moved by the boy’s perilous condition, blesses him, touching his forehead and other parts of his body with his own spit. The boy miraculously recovers, and his recovery is written about in a little-circulated short story by a doctor....

(The entire section contains 1598 words.)

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