WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN, nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, centers on Joe Hackett, Powers’ most engaging protagonist. The setting is the Midwest; the first decades of Joe’s life are shown in fictional snapshots, brief episodes. In the novel’s Joycean opening, he is a little boy trying to make sense of the strange world of grown-ups. Next he is a schoolboy, then a teenager having his first experience with sex, then an earnest seminarian (at one point he dons a hair shirt). After five years as assistant to an eccentric priest and seven years at Archdiocesan Charities, Joe is finally granted a parish of his own, in suburban Inglenook, Minnesota.
All that is covered in the first few chapters of the novel. The bulk of the action takes place in 1968, by which time Joe is well established in his parish. He must contend with the changes wrought by Vatican II (changes which he largely opposes), the commercialization of the Church, the issues raised by the war in Vietnam (he counsels a young man to follow his conscience and refuse to be drafted), and the steady advance of “dreck” on every hand. More deeply, he comes to recognize his own complacence. Having sought a realistic accommodation to human frailty after the self-righteous excesses of his seminary days, it seems that he has slid imperceptibly into spiritual sloth.
Powers’ concern with these matters is fundamentally...
(The entire section is 573 words.)