Thus it’s both revealing and ironic that one of the few genuinely good American novels about business isn’t about “business” at all, but about the Roman Catholic Church. J.F. Powers’s “Morte d’Urban,” first published in 1962 (it won the National Book Award the following year), can be read in any number of ways, but reading it now for the fourth time I am struck more sharply than ever before by how Powers turns this story of a go-getter priest into a metaphor for the world of business. It’s a much better novel than Sinclair Lewis’s far more famous “Babbitt”: subtler, wittier and much more elegantly written.
In the end, then, “Morte d’Urban” isn’t just about a Catholic priest and the Catholic Church, it’s about the American workplace. If there’s a better novel about that subject, I don’t know what it is; certainly Joseph Heller’s ambitious but numbing “Something Happened” falls far short of it. That “Morte d’Urban” is still in print is thanks to New York Review Books Classics, which also has in print “Wheat That Springeth Green” and “The Stories of J.F. Powers.” These are books that matter, and keeping them alive — in the face of general indifference to Powers’s work — is a genuine service to American literature.
There are a couple of ways to look at this – Yardley’s way, which is certainly legitimate. But I think saying that this is more about business than spirituality or that the Church setting functions as a metaphor indicates a gap in understanding of Powers’ subject, which is, most of the time, priests and clerical culture. For the “business” atmosphere which Yardley discerns is not extrinsic to this culture. It’s not something Powers imposes on it because it’s handy. It’s an aspect of institutional church life which he knew from his close association with priests over the years. Certainly, Powers’ work can be read to understand something about American life, particularly the American way of doing business, but how that way of doing business permeates the way of doing God’s business raises its own set of uncomfortable questions, but questions that are very much based in the reality of how things are: the Church making its way, raising its money, building its institutions, finding its place in the New World. I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked in the Church – or a church – could read Powers and do anything but nod.