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Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers

The best of the series of books published by The New York Review of Books are all the works of J.F. Powers, who died in 1989. Powers’ novels and stories are almost entirely concerned with Catholic clerical life in the midwest. I hadn’t read his last novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, and I was happy to find that the new edition contained an introduction by the author’s daughter, Katherine Powers. Wheat That Springeth Green is every bit as fine as Morte D’Urban, his first and only other novel written some 25 years earlier, and a National Book Award winner as well. In its treatment of character and plot the latter novel is theologically perhaps even more complex.

I was a little confused about the ending – let me make that clear from the beginning. While I found the last chapter interesting for the scene in which Father Joe Hackett has moved outside the fictional space he has occupied for most of the novel, I have no idea what this is supposed to mean for him. The last word of the book is “Cross,” as in “Holy Cross,” the parish to which he has been assigned, but I don’t remember this being mentioned anywhere else in the novel. Does it refer to the Cross that Father Hackett has finally learned to bear? Hasn’t he been bearing it all along? Or in this last chapter has he come to a realization which I myself lack the insight to attain? I felt like I was grasping at straws here, and several rereadings of his earlier interaction with the characters that comprise the final chapter haven’t helped me.

While I’m not sure what is being conferred upon us at the end of the story, Joe’s character is cast from the first pages: as a toddler he gets attention from his parents’friends merely for declaiming at a party “I go to church!” We also learn of his parents’ antipathy towards the parish priest’s intoning on the subject of the “Dollar-a-Sunday Club,” an attitude that Joe will inherit, and which becomes a theme that will be played out in a number of surprising ways. We also sense something of his aloofness in these first chapters as well. He doesn’t keep up with many friends, but he does seem to know the value in keeping up appearances: “Joe just smiled at Frances and everybody, so they couldn’t tell how he really felt about being in the sack race…” Joe is a good athlete, even in grade school, and the race he really wants, but doesn’t get, is the sprint.

Much of the story revolves around Joe’s relation to money, so that even an early adventure (described in nearly pornographic detail) involving his first adult relations with women is later understood to be subsumed by his larger pecuniary obsessions. His sexual sins, or at least the memory of them, turn out to be something of a red herring: at the seminary he asks his instructor, “Father, how can we make sanctity as attractive as sex to the common man?” a question that (rightly) earns him nothing but mirth from his fellow seminarians. We are given hints that as Joe grows older he succeeds in overcoming his youthful scrupulosity. After a stint at Archdiocesan Charities he is assigned to the parish of St. Frances – a name shared by his childhood infatuation and a co-traveler in the youthful adventure already mentioned. So as far as sex is concerned, here in his maturity there is a sense that all is right with Joe, if not the world. That this is the case is dramatically reinforced by the nearly hopeless entanglements of an ex-seminarian, some of which leads to misplaced retribution that Joe patiently, even faithfully endures. These episodes are magnificently structured, displaying in Joe’s life a kind of fate that is worked out through choices made less in freedom than with a concern for propriety and in service to principles that are neither his own, nor of the church in which, as he says in other circumstances, he does so much hard time.

Other obstacles to holiness, as perhaps they always must, remain. Although his basic attitude is good, the reader realizes that the young Father Hackett has refused one halo in favor of another when he refuses to toady up to either the priest in his parish or to the archbishop in his archdiocese. Money matters are everywhere in evidence: the rectory built by Joe; bribes offered by parishoners; purses collected on behalf of retiring priests; inheritence; a collection drive that is farmed out to a private firm – in which Joe will take no part. All this points to beyond the contradiction in one man’s character to a paradox that is funamental to our very being. How do we care for an abundance which is most fully ours when we least consider it our own?

Joe’s misappropriation of his own nature, and indeed human nature, leads to a truly heinous transgression in one of the final chapters. That this transgression is committed and then resolved in secret, without comment from Joe or even the narrator, points toward a God who is as truly all merciful as he is unnoticed even by lesser beings working on his behalf. I would guess that the true thorn in Joe’s side is also Powers’, and while reading I several times wondered whether the crux of the story wasn’t inspired by his frustration at watching baskets and plates passed through the pews, week in and week out, for a lifetime. Perhaps the last word makes some sense after all.

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