My first copy of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory cost me $1.65, which will tell you how long ago I first read it, roughly 40 years. And I still own it, which should tell you something else.
Published in 1940, the The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico during the 1930s. The novel tells the story of an unnamed Catholic priest on the run from a high-minded police lieutenant determined to arrest him. The priest, at first, seems to deserve jail. He is a drunk, always hunting for alcohol, and — worse — is the father of a child.
Nonetheless, he emerges as a figure of intense humility and faith, willing to sacrifice himself to attend in secret to the devoted and utterly unaware of his own goodness.
The novel captivated me completely. It was a thriller — but also a novel of ideas. Greene's elegant use of detail, the author's profound knowledge of his characters, and his novel's unrelenting suspense marked the book to me as a work of the highest literary art.
That recognition confused me at the time. I had wanted to be a novelist all my life, but my education had left me unclear about what kinds of novels to write. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most English departments exalted modernism.
Modernism prized avant-garde works like that whose innovations and defiance of literary convention were thought to advance culture. But that meant by definition those books were not intended for a broad popular audience. On the other hand, novels of suspense, while more widely read, were regarded as contrived, formulaic and thus unworthy when measured by those lofty literary standards.
But I had no question when I read, and then repeatedly re-read, The Power and the Glory, that it was a book I would have simply died to write.
Thrilled to Death is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with help from Miriam Krule.