Wheat That Springeth Green
|Publisher:||New York Review of Books|
Wheat That Springeth Green, J. F. Powers’s beautifully realized final work, is a comic foray into the commercialized wilderness of modern American life. Its hero, Joe Hackett, is a high-school track-star who sets out to be a saint. But seminary life and priestly apprenticeship soon damp his ardor, and by the time he has been given a parish of his own he has traded in his hairshirt for the consolations of baseball and beer. Meanwhile Joe’s higher-ups are pressing for an increase in profits from the collection plate, while suburban Inglenook’s biggest business wants to launch its new line of missiles with a blessing, and not so far away, in Vietnam, a war is going on. Joe wants to duck and cover, but in the end, almost in spite of himself, he is condemned to do something right.
A virtuoso of the American language, J.F. Powers had a perfect ear for the telling cliche and a unfailing eye for the kitsch, whether material or moral, that clutters up our lives. This funny and very moving novel about the making and the remaking of a priest in a world of discount marts and financial drives is one of his finest achievements.
During his famous journey through America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the peculiar worldliness of religious practice. Unlike their European counterparts, who specialized in visions of heaven, “American preachers are constantly referring to the earth, and it is only with great difficulty that they can divert their attention from it.” More than a century later, J.F. Powers built an entire career on this national tendency. And nowhere did he capture the sacred-and-profane balancing act with more amusement than in his 1975 novel, Wheat That Springeth Green. His protagonist, a Great Depression-era child of the Midwest named Joe Hackett, has early dreams of joining the priesthood:
If he decided to be a priest in a religious order, though, he could live out in the country, at a college, and have invigorating walks and talks with students…and maybe some exciting adventures, and also do good, as often happened in the Father Finn books (“’My God!’ cried the atheist”) that Sister Agatha read to the class at the end of the day.
Joe eventually attends seminary, is ordained, and finds himself appointed as assistant to a high-octane contemplative, Father Van Slaag. But by the time he gets his own parish, in 1968, he’s become an expert at relegating sanctity to the back burner. Overweight, agreeably resigned, Joe accepts the fact that “running a parish, any parish, was like riding a cattle car in the wintertime—you could appreciate the warmth of your dear, dumb friends, but you never knew when you’d be stepped on, or worse.”
It takes the arrival of a young, over-earnest curate to jog his idealism back to life. And in return, he imparts to the younger man his knowledge of the “worldly” priesthood—a craft that Powers, no less than de Tocqueville, refuses to condemn. This exchange, which is gradual and grudging on both sides, occupies the greater portion of Wheat That Springeth Green. And the protagonist’s regeneration, like that alluded to in the title, seems no less miraculous for being expected. The result is a marvelous, acute novel, which gives to Joe’s spiritual rebirth the shape of a classic American comedy—trials and tribulations, and finally, a happy ending. —James Marcus