The Priest with the Fishnet Hatband

HYMAN, STANLEY EDGAR

WRITERS & WRITING The Priest with the Fishnet Hatband By Stanley Edgar Hyman "Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!," St. Bernard thundered in the 12th century. J. F. Powers, who used...

...Bernard, tells Burner spiritual truths, and intends to keep him a curate until he finds "not peace but a sword" in his vocation, if he ever does...
...Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" is a portrait of a saint, and is a beautiful and moving story...
...Powers' spokesmen in the story are young Father Quinlan, who quotes hard doctrine from St...
...In the second, he prevents Billy, who is furious at catching no fish at a fishing camp, from drowning a swimming deer...
...In the first story-it is embarrassing to have to synopsize it-the cat is conditioned by wicked priests to dread a crucifix, but is then mysteriously killed and reborn "redeemed from my previous fear...
...One moral of the book is openly preached by Monsignor Renton, Father Urban's confessor, who denies the value of anything done by a priest outside his sacramental role...
...He then buys the order a station wagon and builds it a golf course, complete with a "shrine of Our Lady below No...
...The other two are indescribably awful...
...Billy tosses him out of the boat and drives home without him, then spitefully abandons the station wagon he has given the order and evicts them from the office building...
...N. T." Tracy, a disgusting Big Catholic Layman who is trying to sell him insurance, we recognize that Burner has intelligence and a degree of spiritual insight...
...Morte D'Urban makes it clear that the range of spiritual experience Powers is prepared to allow a priest is too narrow to make a novel...
...In the later sections these disappear, and we see through Burner in turn...
...In "A Losing Game" an eccentric old pastor fires at imaginary rats in his basement and wings his presumptuous curate...
...When a local bishop tries to take over the Clementine retreat house for a seminary, and Urban saves it, in a trial by combat on the links, by getting knocked unconscious by the bishop's golf ball, we are in the world of comic strips, not of serious fiction...
...finally illness transforms him...
...At the end he is elected Provincial of the order because of his worldly connections, and disappoints his backers by turning out to be a pious and unworldly director...
...Father Wilfred, who runs the retreat house in the spirit of the primitive church...
...There are three Negro stories in Prince of Darkness...
...Thwaites sends him packing...
...his assistant Brother Harold, who caught 70 pounds of fish while Billy and Urban caught none (he is the true fisher of men...
...In "The Trouble" the child narrator's mother is killed by a white mob in a race riot, and the bereaved family in Christian charity rescues a cowardly white rioter from a Negro mob...
...In "The Lord's Day" a group of nuns is seen counting the Sunday collections, divided into two teams, Cubs and White Sox...
...The problem here is that the three moral acts are absurd, and it is all made too easy and reassuring...
...The story blends these symbols with consummate mastery, a thematic "Popes, Crayfish, Leaping Canaries...
...Didymus recalls his happiness wading in a stream with his dead brother, pursued by a crayfish "clad in sable armor...
...It is terribly funny when Father Urban, making suburban parish calls for his own spiritual good, is wet on by a hamster, but it is not the Dark Night of the Soul...
...A devoted lay brother reads aloud to him from a volume of lives of the early popes...
...The whisky priest of Graham Greene's The Labyrinthine Ways-alcoholic, cowardly, weak, the father of a bastard-dies a martyr and is perhaps a saint, deeply sinful and deeply repentant...
...In his middle range, the bulk of Powers' stories consist of affectionate yet sardonic portraits of the clergy...
...Powers has always been a very uneven writer...
...Powers makes some effort to identify Burner with Satan...
...She hits him in the head with a shoe and leaves him marooned on an island...
...Didymus, sure that he is not a saint, troubled by "the grossest distractions," remembering his vocation in the imagery of "wiping the lipstick of the faithful from the image of Christ crucified," suddenly attains to a pure sanctity beyond desire and flies into death like a freed canary...
...As befits his name, Urban is a worldly priest...
...Most of the stories deal with the Roman Catholic clergy, given an intense scrutiny, although Powers has written a few early stories, and those his worst, dealing with Negro life...
...He is a tidy sinner, tidily redeemed...
...If Powers' weakness in Prince of Darkness is Negro pastoral, in The Presence of Grace it is pussycat whimsy...
...Two of the stories about priests, "Death of a Favorite" and "Defection of a Favorite," are narrated by a rectory cat, in a fashion designed to turn the strongest stomach...
...For many years his first novel has been almost as eagerly awaited as Katherine Anne Porter's...
...In the second the cat prays, and assists in the reform of a sinful curate by manifesting a Sign...
...he identifies with a caged canary in his cell, and collapses in trying to free it...
...In Powers' best stories, which are among the finest of our time, he looks at the clergy, not with wry affection, but with St...
...Thwaites' married daughter or even to look at her undressed...
...It shows the decline and death of an old Franciscan, Father Didymus, in a series of tiny incidents...
...It is at least a respectable try at a story...
...Urban's third moral act is to refuse to go for a naked swim with Mrs...
...Like that prototype of fiction writers, when he is good he is very very good, and when he is bad he is horrid...
...Powers' comedy undercuts and trivializes his drama of redemption...
...1 cigars exclusively, he plays a "near-professional" game of golf, he wears a straw hat with fishnet band, and he identifies opposition to his ways as "puritanism and black clericalism.' The tempter, Billy Cosgrove, out of esteem for Urban gives the Clementines the free use of a fancy office building...
...Morte D'Urban is a gentler jab at the sinfulness of the clergy, with Father Burner metamorphosed into Father Urban of the Order of St...
...Prince of Darkness" is a matching portrait of a sinful priest, Father Ernest Burner, a perpetual curate...
...Unfortunately, the book is disappointing: it does not quite shape up as a novel, and it is comic in the wrong sense, meaning frivolous...
...The Monsignor of "The Forks" advises his earnest young curate to shave his armpits and wear "Steeple," the Cologne for Clergymen...
...He is a famous preacher and charmer, sporting the most liberal religious principles, interested in the salvation of only the wealthy and influential...
...Paul and mocks his fellow curate as "Saint Ernest Burner, Help of Golfers," and the archbishop, a saintly old man who quotes St...
...5 green.' In the course of his redemption, Father Urban commits three moral acts, each promptly punished...
...Apparently Urban is not meant to be Arthur, but Launcelot, the worldliest and most sinful knight redeemed as the most pious hermit and true priest...
...The book's title, Morte D'Urban, introduces an obscure parallel with Malory's Morte D'Arthur, a work repeatedly discussed in it...
...Clement, tempted by a new Big Catholic Layman...
...He Don't Plant Cotton" is about the firing of a Negro piano-and-drums duo for refusing to perform "??? Man River" often enough to satisfy a group of drunken white Mississippians...
...Smoking Havana cigars is not really satanic, and renouncing them is not really salvation...
...The Eye" is just as bad, an absurdity about a Southern Negro who bravely rescues a pregnant white girl from drowning and is lynched for his pains...
...He uses his clerical collar as a target for putting practice in his room, he daydreams of being a German war ace or an advertising copywriter, he uses a holy-water font for an ashtray, he thinks Studs Lonigan is the best thing since the Bible, he perceives the odor of sanctity as "body odor," and he fails as a confessor through boorish obtusity...
...J. F. Powers, who used to publish sermons on that text in the form of excellent short stories, seems now not to be so sure...
...In the first section of the story, as he sees through "T...
...He is as spiritually gross as he is physically fat and gluttonous...
...Powers' champagne priest who trims Peter's great net down to a fishnet hatband is too chic an image to disturb or convince imaginatively...
...Bernard's hard eye, in terms of moral absolutes...
...In the first, he intercedes with a wealthy benefactor, Mrs...
...The priest of "The Valiant Woman" and his domineering housekeeper spend their evenings playing cutthroat honeymoon bridge, in a wicked parody of a marriage...
...When Urban is taken off the road and assigned to a primitive rural retreat house, Billy sends the house a Christmas hamper of food and liquor, an electrified cr??che, and a color television set...
...It is more effectively symbolized in a few figures: an anonymous pedestrian who stands up to Billy's Rolls Royce (as Urban does not...
...Mrs...
...Powers has published two volumes of short stories, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories in 1947, and The Presence of Grace in 1956...
...In "The Presence of Grace," the same old pastor is discovered blowing out all the vigil candles after the last Mass, as a fire hazard...
...He is nicknamed "the Prince of Darkness" because of a photographic darkroom he has set up in the rectory, and he drives his car "applying a cloven foot to the pedal.' This pathetic vocationless slob is hardly Satan, merely a priest destined for hellfire (thus "Burner...
...Gradually, at the retreat house, Father Urban becomes more spiritual: filling in for a sick parish priest, he shows something like a vocation and develops a dimension of honesty...
...He dines in the Pump Room on champagne and shish kebab (there is an uproarious debate with another priest over whether or not Our Lord ate shish kebab), he smokes Dunhill Monte Cristo Colorado Maduro No...
...Powers' Bunyanesque allegories of Father Sure-of-Hellfire and Father Worldly lack Bunyan's quality of desperation...
...Thwaites, on behalf of a maid she has cheated...
...Now, in Morte D'Urban (Doubleday, 336 pp., $4.50), we have it...

Vol. 45 • September 1962 • No. 19


 
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