(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the epigraph to Morte d’Urban, a quotation from J. M. Barrie, Powers sets forth the central ironic theme of his novel: “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.” Father Urban (Harvey Roche), a clever, manipulative speaker and organizer dedicated to making the Church a prospering and efficient social institution, comes to discover in the eleventh hour that what really counts in the religious life is one’s spiritual well-being.

Acknowledged by many critics as Powers’s best book, Morte d’Urban was originally written from the point of view of its hero, Father Urban. Powers recast his novel, employing a third-person narrative while skillfully retaining Father Urban as the central intelligence of the story. This shift in point of view enabled Powers to develop the important ironic perspective that shapes the entire novel. Funny, ironic, satiric, and compassionate, Powers brings a Chaucerian tone to the modern novel.

A middle-aged member of the fictitious Order of St. Clement, Father Urban travels out of Chicago, raising money, preaching dynamic sermons to standing-room-only crowds of admiring listeners. His charm, energy, and go-getting spirit would have made him an outstanding success in business, but the Clementines are run by and constituted of priests who are largely conservative, fumbling, and doddering fellows. As far as religious orders go, the Clementines are losers: Their vocations are down, some of their houses have been taken over by more aggressive diocesan priests, and none of their members but Father Urban seems to understand their problem.

By wooing a wealthy benefactor named Billy Cosgrove, an egotistical son of Mammon, Father Urban manages to obtain new quarters for the Clementines. Instead of nurturing Father Urban’s enterprising spirit, however, the provincial sends him, along with Father John (Jack), to the order’s failing retreat center in the remote community of Duesterhaus (meaning “house of gloom”). Father Wilfrid, the rector, obsessed with the petty details of maintaining the retreat house and with asserting his dominance over Father Urban, sets Fathers John and Urban to the task of painting walls and varnishing floors (with the cheapest materials) in order to make the house more attractive to retreatants.

Having spent more than a month wasting his talents at St. Clement’s Hill (so named by Father Urban), Father Urban is sent by Father Wilfrid to replace a vacationing pastor at St. Monica’s Church. During the next month and a half, Father Urban manages to convince the cautious and ailing pastor, Father Phil Smith, to build a new church. When he later discovers that Father Smith has died during his vacation, Father Urban thinks that he may be chosen to be the new pastor. The bishop, however, offers him an Indian mission, which he rejects in favor of returning to St. Clement’s Hill.

Father Urban persuades Billy Cosgrove to buy a tract of land adjoining St. Clement’s Hill, have it developed as a golf course, and donate it to the order. Hearing that the Bishop is interested in taking over the Hill as the site for a new seminary, Father Urban invites the bishop to play a round of golf with him in the hope of convincing him of the Hill’s productive future. During the course of the game, however, the bishop’s ball strikes Father Urban in the head, sending him to the hospital. After he regains consciousness at the hospital, Father Urban learns that the bishop, feeling guilty for striking him in the head with his golf ball, has decided not to take over St. Clement’s Hill.

Nevertheless, after being struck by the ball, Father Urban moves into a series of adventures that totally changes his life. He goes to live at the estate of the wealthy benefactor of St. Clement’s, Mrs. Thwaites, in order to recuperate from his trauma. While there, he attempts to help out Mrs. Thwaites’s servant, a young Irish woman named Katie, who has lost most of her...

(The entire section is 1644 words.)