Destructive satire and a lack of symbolic language separates one from the other.

Novelists J. F. and John R. Powers could be father and son. Both grew up in Illinois and attended Northwestern University. Both are Roman Catholic, and write about present-day church problems. J. F. is about thirty years older than John R. But they aren’t related. Their work reveals that they are strangers in fact, philosophy, style, and temperament.

J. F. Powers, 61, has published four books in thirty-five years. His novel, Morte d’Urban (Doubleday, 1962) received the 1963 National Book Award. He has also published collections of short stories: Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (Doubleday, 1947); The Presence of Grace (Doubleday, 1956); Look How The Fish Live (Knopf, 1975). His fiction concerns the daily lives of Catholic priests.

The meticulous layering of symbols on symbols, a Powers trademark, accounts for his slow working pace. The short stories can be read on several levels. In Morte d’Urban eight major symbols exist in the coat of arms Powers designed for Father Urban Roche, his protagonist.

Along with the book’s link to the King Arthur legends, Powers makes use of urban and rural symbolism, taking Father Urban from the fleshly life in Chicago to his “home on the hill” (Calvary), the retreat at Duesterhaus, Minnesota. The book not only deals with the difficult parable in Luke 16:1–9, but also carries Urban, the worldly-wise salesman-priest, along a path of modern-day conversion that closely mirrors New Testament events.

In a reversal of the temptation of Christ, Urban accedes to the blandishments of Billy Cosgrove (the stinking goat, Satan) on the roof of a luxury apartment building in Chicago.

This sets in motion a chain of events placing ...

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