1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, Books, Fiction

Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962) by John Updike

This is a collection of Updike’s short stories and I feel like it might be his first collection. They range in length and quality but, on the whole, I think they are worthwhile if you like Updike as a writer.

“Walter Briggs” is an extremely well-written portrait of a brief moment in a relationship. Once you realize who Briggs is, the title either creates tension or disappointment (or a mixture of both). It’s pretty slight but it’s also pretty easy to understand why this would have been exciting to some people whenever cam out. This kind of honest but ambiguous portrait of marriage – in so few words – was probably a pretty rare thing.

“The Persistence of Desire” is another little episode in a married man’s life, this time the married man has returned home and accidentally runs into his former flame. The details are all really well done. The character seems a little immature, but then I remember that at this time married men with young children were likely in their 20s.

“Still Life” is longer than the first two stories and feels more substantive if only because of its length. It’s a unique story for me – I certainly didn’t know the GI Bill paid for Americans to study in Europe – though it feels thematically similar to the other stories so far. This time the man is single and he’s hoping to date a woman (girl really). This particular single man reminds me a bit of myself at that age, actually. Anyway, it feels very well rendered and written, as usual.

I didn’t grow up in a small town like the guy in “Flight” but I can understand, still, some of his issues with the community of his childhood and teenage years. Perhaps it’s because it’s so richly drawn but I found this quite compelling despite the drama of the end.

“Should Wizard Hit Mommy?” picks up with the family from “Walter Briggs.” This particular portrait of imperfect domesticity doesn’t really work for me.

I found “A Sense of Shelter” really compelling. I have never had a stutter but I have been absolutely paralyzed around girls and also had trouble handling boys my age. This story does a really good job of highlighting adolescent struggles and how particular moments are frozen in time. For William, it’s him telling the object of his affection about his feelings and not getting anywhere. For me, it’s having the opportunity and not doing it.

I saw “Dear Alexandros” coming a mile away. I don’t really go in for these “the ease of divorce has made us weak” type things.

I don’t feel like the guy in “Wife-wooing” but I think I get it – he’s just more extreme than me in my feelings. It’s well written, like all of these stories, and it’s hard to be too critical of that when you love the writing but don’t like the character.

“Pigeon Feathers,” the title story, is a prequel to Of the Farm. I didn’t like the main character in the novel and I don’t like him here, even though he’s much younger here. Updike does a good job of portraying childhood intellectual confusion but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

“Home,” on the other hand, is a wonderfully specific and vivid take on the idea that “you can never go home again,” featuring a man returning to his country home with his wife and child, full of all sorts of great details of the kind that makes reading Updike so rewarding.

I have no time for the pseudo spiritual vomit that is “Archangel.” I know I was in the wrong mood for this and I would have found more to it at a more receptive time in my life, but I don’t think it fits in at all with the other stories in this collection and I really don’t have any intellectual time for these kinds of ideas.

“You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You” is a great depiction of a child’s first independent trip to the fair. It connects with me a little more than some of these because I once “got lost” at a fair but things worked up much better for me and I wasn’t disillusioned like this child.

I would probably like “The Astronomer” a little more if I didn’t feel like it equivocated as much as it does on its subject, but it’s still very well rendered, like basically everything he writes.

I liked “A & P,” one of Updike’s most famous stories, more the first time I read it. It is extremely vivid but I think, for me, the thing that undercuts is effectiveness is the sense of knowledge the narrator has about his future. I think I would prefer it without.

“The Doctor’s Wife” is very different from most of these stories, though it does roughly feature the same family that features in many of them. We’re on Aguilla, the first time we’ve left the US or the UK, and an American confronts an old racist British woman. It hasn’t dated that well, though that isn’t to say I think it’s racist. It’s just hard to see what I should take from it, except that it’s yet another instance of one of Updike’s male protagonists feeling emasculated by a woman.

“The Lifeguard” is another of Updike’s portraits of someone struggling with their faith. I must admit I had a lot of time for these types of things – I was a massive Dostoevsky fan – when I was younger but now I don’t. They have ceased making sense to me now that I no longer struggle with these types of things myself.

“The Crow in the Woods” is another snippet of domesticity of the same family that has featured in many of these stories (Jack and Clare and their child or children.) It’s wonderfully vivid but, like many of Updike’s stories about domesticity, feels pretty dated with its gender roles.

“The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island” is a weird one – ostensibly a collection of three abandoned stories, I’m not quite sure what the point is here. However, the first two are clearly related and the middle one (“M Grandmother’s Thimble”) is excellent. The thing that makes me dislike the exercise is the third, which feels unrelated to the first two.

“Paced Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car” works significantly better as a collection of vignettes because they all feel related. But, as with the previous collection of unfinished stories, one is clearly superior to the others (“A Traded Car” in this case) which makes the rest of it feel less consequential. Though at least this time it is structured so that the best one is the climactic one. It’s an improvement for sure.

Updike is an incredible writer. I have a few problems with him, though, which keep me from celebrating him as much as other people have. Firstly, his work is too autobiographical for me. I am reminded of Phillip Roth, whose work is also usually autobiographical, but something about Roth’s work (and his protagonists) usually connects with me in a way which Updike’s doesn’t. Roth’s world is more relatable, Roth’s narrators are usually more relatable. This is just personal preference.

The other thing is that, though Updike appears to be a non-believer now, most of his writing in this collection concerns questions of faith to some degree or other. Had I read him when I was 17 or 22 or maybe even 27, I would have had a lot of time for these types of questions. I don’t any more. The matter for me is settled. I struggle reading over and over again about someone struggling to reconcile fact with mythic tradition. Again, this is just personal preference.

Because Updike is a wonderful writer and is capable of painting extremely vivid portraits of physical scenes, relationship drams and inner life. Some of these portraits of dated a bit – so that we might call some of his thoughts “sexist” or, occasionally “racist,” though I prefer “prejudiced” – but it’s good to read about other times, even when there is bias we don’t like. I think this collection is still mostly worthwhile and is probably a better entry point than some of his novels.


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