Anthony Burgess

Earthly Powers

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Earthly Powers Summary

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Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess follows protagonist Kenneth Toomey, a retired gay writer, on the day of his eighty-first birthday. Although Kenneth has achieved much commercial success, he does not feel that he has produced any work that he would consider high art, therefore, feeling a sense of failure as a writer. He feels isolated as a result of his homosexuality, which ended his ties with his family as well as the church. Throughout the novel, Burgess contrasts Kenneth’s character with that of Carlo Campanati, a priest who seeks reform, the adopted son of an affluent Italian family. While Kenneth is intensely pessimistic, Carlo is an eternal optimist.

As the novel opens, Kenneth is in bed with a young boy when he receives news that the Archbishop of Malta has come to see him. After getting himself together, Kenneth greets the Archbishop, who has come to request that Kenneth attest to the fact that the recently deceased Carlo Campanati once performed a certain miracle cure in Chicago, making him eligible for canonization.

The rest of the novel consists of Kenneth’s reminiscing about past events, which takes the reader on a journey through the better part of the twentieth century, beginning with Kenneth’s early memories of coming to terms with his sexuality. When he was still a young writer, Kenneth recalls confiding in his sister, Hortense, about his sexual orientation. Hortense reveals this information to their mother, who writes Kenneth a strongly-worded letter expressing her disappointment.

Kenneth thinks that he might turn to the church to provide him some solace in his time of need, but after confessing his homosexuality to a priest, he finds that he is chastised and rejected. Feeling out of sorts without family or the church in his life, Kenneth realizes he must, nevertheless, live a life that is true to himself. He begins a romantic relationship with Rodney Selkirk, an actor who is performing in one of Kenneth’s satirical plays being put on in London. One night, when Rodney and Kenneth are in bed together, the door bursts open and Rodney’s wife catches them in the act. She is accompanied by two police officers that arrest Kenneth on the spot. Kenneth decides to leave England rather than await trial, nervous as to what the outcome would be. He is unable to return home for many years after his departure.

After Kenneth leaves England, a deadly influenza outbreak claims many lives from 1917 until 1918. Both Rodney and Kenneth’s mothers fall victim to the disease. Kenneth’s sister, Hortense, comes to visit him in Paris, and Kenneth introduces her to his friend, Domenico Campanati, the brother of Carlo and Raffaele Campanati. Hortense is instantly attracted to Domenico, making it her mission to seduce him. By the end of the year, the two are married, and shortly thereafter, Hortense gives birth to twins.

Kenneth goes to Chicago, where Raffaele lives and works as an importer of Italian goods. While Kenneth is there, Raffaele is murdered by the mob. Carlo Campanati rushes to be with his brother, but by the time he arrives, Raffaele is already gone. Devastated, Carlo wanders the hospital, crossing paths with a teenaged boy Godfrey Manning who is dealing with a fatal case of tuberculosis. Moved by the boy’s condition, Carlo offers him his blessing, after which the boy makes a miraculous recovery. The story of the boy’s recovery circulates around the hospital and is written about by one of the doctors. Kenneth also witnesses the event; the Archbishop of Malta is hoping Kenneth will attest to this sighting in order to move forward with Carlo’s canonization.

Certain ironies surrounding Carlo’s religious fervor emerge later on in the novel, for example, when John, Hortense’s son, and both Kenneth and Carlo’s nephew, and his wife, Laura, go to Rukwa to study African culture. In Rukwa, John and Laura are murdered and cannibalized by natives who have been converted to Christianity and who interpret the consumption of the body of Christ literally.

In another twist of irony, Ann’s daughter, Eve, and her husband have moved out to live on a commune in the California desert led by the charismatic God Manning, a character modeled after Jim Jones. A congressman comes to investigate the commune and is shot and killed. Afterward, the members of the commune take cyanide and die. The leader of the cult is the same person Carlo saved miraculously in the hospital in Chicago years earlier.

At the end of the novel, Kenneth is back in England living with his sister, Hortense. He has finally come to terms with his own homosexuality and the judgment brought upon him by his family and the church.