Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wheat That Springeth Green (#20BooksOfSummer)

"As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."
The novel is not actually cockeyed,
only my ability to resize a photograph.
I read this book too fast, which is a good sign in a novel, but makes it more difficult to write about. Oh well. It is a very good novel.

Joe Hackett was a kid in the 1920s. His father owns the town's coal delivery service and they're reasonably well off. The family is Catholic, and young Joe plans to grow up and be a businessman like his father--or a priest.

A priest is what he becomes.

At the seminary Joe is part of a crowd (which includes Cooney, Mooney, and Rooney!) that aspires to an ascetic sort of sainthood. There's some amusing by-play about who gets to keep the hair shirt. (It's funny in context...ya gotta believe me...) One of the circle goes on to join the Trappists, but Joe becomes a regular priest, serving first as a curate, then in an office with Catholic Charities, finally in charge of a parish of his own.

Powers made a specialty of priests and the bureaucracy of the church; his debut novel Morte d'Urban (1962) is, for my money, a masterpiece of the first rank. He's funny and touching both; his priests are imperfect, but well-meaning. The church bureaucracy is...a bureaucracy, just like a lot of other bureaucracies.

Still this is quite different than Morte d'Urban. Fr. Urban Roche is a mover and a shaker; he's climbing up the church hierarchy, while struggling to maintain his goodness. Fr. Joe Hackett never means to be ambitious in that way; once he's passed on his youthful dreams of an austere sanctity, he means only to be a good priest and he's interested in 'priestly fellowship.' But he's a bit unsocial and insecure; that's his thought in the statement I quote above; and those things he feels strongly about--anti-militarism, and that the church shouldn't appear money-grubbing--aren't going to endear him to his fellow priests or the church hierarchy in the 50s and 60s. There's a funny bit in the middle where he excitedly learns he's going to have a curate--a fellow priest!--but he fails to learn his name, and is too shy to ask when the curate does show up.

Eventually he does learn his curate's name--Fr. Bill Schmidt--and tells Bill to invite his seminary friends round to the church for dinner; Bill does, but then the younger contingent all retreat to Bill's room, leaving Joe to watch the Twins on TV by himself. No priestly fellowship.

A couple of crises happen: since he's socially maladroit, he takes to drinking too much, and probably qualifies as an alcoholic. He's set up a scheme whereby his parishioners contribute yearly and aren't dunned for money from the pulpit, but higher assessments from the diocese messes up his arrangement; and the son of a local reporter (the reporter is also a bit of a friend) is going to dodge the Vietnam draft and comes to Joe for advice; that reporter/father is gung-ho for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Can he resolve these and still be a good man and a good priest?

Well, the ending is positive, but the future is not certain. This passage comes from near the end. Greg is that draft-dodger; at this point Greg's in Montreal, working at a Dorothy Day Catholic Worker charity, and Joe has just finished helping out for a couple of weeks during his vacation:
"Do me a favor," Greg said.
"Sure. What?"
"Keep it up."
"What?" Joe said, though he knew what.
Greg just looked at him.
"We'll see," Joe said then, and drove away.
The final chapter shows him keeping it up.

The title comes from an old hymn; the book prints the first verse and I suppose that's a clue to how the novel should be read:
Now the green blade riseth
  from the buried grain,
wheat that in dark earth
  many days has lain;
love lives again, that
  with the dead has been:
Love is come again like
  wheat that springeth green.

Highly recommended, though I would recommend Morte d'Urban even more. 


  1. Sadly, I haven't read any books by this author. But I enjoyed reading your review. :)

  2. an open door to a new world... tx...

    1. He's good, I think--in case that wasn't clear ;)

  3. I used to love it when they included music in a book, like it was the list of chocolates that came with the nicer boxes, detailing how to find the kind you most loved.

    1. I find it fun, but my ability to read music is pretty much zero so I also don't know what to make of it necessarily...