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Book Review : Bemused Eye on Suburban Priesthood

Times Book Critic

Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 339 pages.)

When tempering was introduced into Western music several centuries ago, it was a kind of compromise. When instruments were keyed to play one scale perfectly in tune, the irregularity of natural intervals meant that other scales were painfully askew.

Temperance--moderation, in this case, in the use of perfection--resulted in no tune coming out quite right; on the other hand, you could transpose it to just about any key. Only a saint, with perfect pitch besides, would argue that from there to Muzak was merely a large, loose step.

J. F. Powers is not really transposable. He is untempered. His register is narrow, and outside it, he tends to buzz and slide. Inside it, he is a tuning fork and you could sing by him.

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Look at Chaplains

Powers’ register, back to “Prince of Darkness” and “Morte D’Urban,” has been priests; specifically, outer-city or inner-suburban American priests. Modern chaplains to the middle-class and torn between the demands of their priesthood and those of their chaplaincy; just as medieval chaplains were no doubt torn between twin duties to bless their lord’s soul and his weapons.

It is a dry, rueful, serio-comic kind of tornness. Powers on priests does not approach the grandeur of Georges Bernanos nor the fitful resonance of Graham Greene. He is light; yet in his way he also writes about the paradox of the incarnation; that impossible fusion of divine strength and human weakness. True, he writes of its absurdity more than its grandeur, but it is definitely the same incarnation.

“Wheat That Springeth Green” seems less fresh and pungent than the other two books did in their day, a quarter-century ago. Much of its ground--the priest as golfer, parish fund-raiser, shopping plaza patron--Powers had already sown.

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Furthermore, since the new book is a life-story, it slips out of the author’s register twice: In telling of the protagonist’s childhood and adolescence, and in telling of the break he makes at the end.

Both are logical, of course. But to dramatize Joe Hackett’s childhood as a little show-off, Powers imitates the infant-discourse at the start of Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist,” and not very well. Joe’s adolescence as various kinds of athletics, including sexual, is done with fairly heavy strokes.

Master of Creaky Steps

As for the ending, it is right and appropriate that Joe’s early priestly idealism, never entirely extinguished, should flare up, and that he should resign his comfortable parish to work in the slums.

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But it is just that this kind of big step is not Powers’ province. He is master of the tiny, creaky steps and side-steps taken daily by a bag of fleshly and worldly concerns pricked by a faint and flickering spirit.

Joe builds a well-equipped rectory--a new church should wait, he tells the archbishop, until his suburban parish grows some more--imposes a tithe instead of untidy special collections, plays poker with other priests, tries to break in an unruly young curate. In all of this, he is like a man eating a heavy meal while trying to ignore the tiny warnings sent up by his blood vessels.

We believe, despite the apparent evidence, that there is saintliness there. Because Powers’ genius is to show saintliness as irascibility and as a comical, Mr. Magoo-like tendency to unconsciously bungle the practicalities so that they don’t work right.

Some of Joe’s comic ordeals seem a bit contrived: His efforts to turn his 1980s curate into a 1950s priest--he imposes a curfew--and his frustration in trying to get precisely the new bedroom furniture he had ordered.

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But even the contrivances have a use. Joe’s attempt to be chaplain to the consumer society stumbles over the fact that the consumer society doesn’t work as well as he thought it did--hence, the wrong beds.

Oddly, and effectively, it is a kind of sign; one of the small frustrations that bring him to an awareness of his futility, and that shift him, at the end, toward the spirit of his seminary days.

It is splendid comedy, but out of it emerges some lovely, unexpected considerations about the spirit and the flesh.


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