John Updike tells good stories in his new collection, “Pigeon Feathers.” What’s more — or, rather, what helps to make them good — is his conspicuous devotion to the perilous marksmanship of words.
All readers are bound to be grateful to him for that. He is no Pater and he is no Joyce. Cliches and banalities he knows, have their valued uses in making a story flow. They provide comfortable, reassuring cadences — and he employs them when he does not want to interrupt our concentration on what’s going on with a trip to the dictionary or a muttered what-the-devil-does-that-word mean.
Time and again, though, he finds just the right words to give a fresh shine to a familiar situation. He speaks, for example, of an encounter with a very junior doctor, “not much older than myself but venerable with competence and witnessed pain.”
He skips the bits about the smell of hay and harnesses to tell us, with Thoreauvian precision, that: “A barn, in day, is a small night.”
In his own words about words he reminds us of the “curious and potent, inexplicable and irrefutable magical life language leads within itself” — not entirely unaided, of course, by wide margins, Devonshire-cream paper, and clear type.
Speaking of which, I am happy to report that his publisher felicitously chimes Mr. Updike’s Pennsylvania-Dutch tones with a Linotype contribution named for Janson, a Dutchman. And paper made at Spring Grove, Pa.
Over Territory and Time
The stories in “Pigeon Feathers” float from Pennsylvania to England, to New England, to New York, and always back to Pennsylvania. In general outline and under various names the characters are repeated as frequently as characters are repeated when you are reading the works, say, of J.D. Salinger or John P. Marquand.
An iconoclastic schoolteacher father, an indomitable mother, an even more indomitable (if you will) grandmother, a dozing grandfather and a scholarly, slightly girl-shy young man who wants to write are in the original cast. There are parts for children of two generations: the one seen in a mirror, the other viewed from parental altitudes. Eventually, I imagine, that second generation will start writing stories about Mr. Updike’s slowly aging cycle. That should keep the genealogists of lit’ry criticism busy, shouldn’t I?
At first glance Mr. Updike’s range seems narrow. As a matter of fact, though, it is wide. If he repeats himself it is from choice, not necessity. And he can sketch a whole world, the intellectual world of the swarming foundation grantees, by merely saying that, on a ship crossing of the Atlantic, there was “blackjack with the Rhodes Scholars and deck tennis with the Fulbrights.”
Yet he is not a pennon bearer for a new generation of American writers. The sense you got when you first read F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner that — like it or not — American literature was off in new directions, shattering matrixes of the past, does not rise from Mr. Updike’s pages. Rather, he has the calm assurance of a man at work in a familiar field to which he brings a penetrating power of discerning the unusual beneath the commonplace.
Revelation in Phrasing
He can, for example, express the cooling of a marriage in a few lines of the story called “Walter Briggs.” Riding through the countryside, the young husband and the young wife become engrossed in a time-passing game of remembering odd characters. Later, the man reflects he was happy that “they had discovered such a good game for the car just when he thought there were no more games for them.”
However, I must add that in other stories about men and women Mr. Updike beats that central favorite idea to shreds as he examines lives on his sedulously provincial landscapes.
Those who endure most are those who count most in these stories. They may be callow youngsters who survive an age when their prose styles seem marinated in Swinburne, or persons of a stature with one glorious old lady: “Shaped like a sickle, her life whipped through grasses of confusion and lethargy that in a summer month grew up again as tall as before.”
j ohn Updike is the most talented writer of his age in America (he is 30 today) and perhaps the most serious. His natural talent is so great that for some time it has been a positive handicap to him — in a small way by exposing him from an early age to a great deal of head-turning praise, in a large way by continually getting out of hand. He has already written five books — two novels (“The Poorhouse Fair” and “Rabbit, Run”), a volume of verse (“The Carpentered Men”), and two books of stories (“The Same Door” and this book). Read in chronological order they show clearly the battle that has gone on between his power to dazzle and his serious insight.
His love of words and ideas for their own sake is almost Joycean, and he has often imitated Joyce in the almost mechanical way of someone doing an exercise in a creative-writing class: how his virtuosity must have charmed his writing teachers! His evident school-brightness and the first-class education it brought him provided every opportunity for the overdevelopment of his onomastic tendencies. They are most obvious in his verse (“Conceptually a blob,/ the knob/ is a smallish object which,/ hitched/ to a larger,/ acts as verger”), but they are present also in his fiction, a constant pleasure to anyone who enjoys watching an artist at work.
Verbal brilliance of this kind, however, can be a danger for a writer of fiction. The young man who, under various names, is the hero of the stories in “Pigeon Feathers” says of one of his unknown rivals, “he would wear eyebrow- style glasses, be a griper, have some not quite negotiable talent, like playing the clarinet or drawing political cartoons,” thus nicely illustrating his author’s highly negotiable talent for adorning his stories with a cosmatesque surface of very great and radically irrelevant decorative charm. This lovingly executed, verbally elegant surface makes people describe Mr. Updike as a “poetic” writer, as indeed he is in a book like “The Poorhouse Fair.” But charming as the poetry of “The Poorhouse Fair” is, Mr. Updike’s preoccupation with it made him lose track of something he started to express in the book — that is, his sense of life itself — that is far more important than elegance.
This conflict between wit and insight stands out strongly in his early work because his insight, though it will stand romantic irony, cannot survive merely intellectual wit. It requires sincerity, even earnestness. Mr. Updike is a romantic; for him the instinctive, unselfconscious sense of “what feels right” is the source of life and the means to salvation. Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of “Rabbit, Run,” may often inadvertently do harm, cause pain; but he is never evil or dead. “I don’t know,” he says to Ruth. “I don’t know any of these answers. All I know is what feels right. You feel right to me. Sometimes Janice his wife used to. Sometimes nothing does.”
Rabbit is touchingly inexperienced and naive, but he has, as an old lady tells him, “Life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.” When Rabbit, at the end of the book, runs away for the second time, it is a desperate and perhaps a futile act, but it is at least a continuation of the fight for life. Rabbit, run, is the author’s imperative cry from the heart.
Mr. Updike is a romantic in a second sense which goes far to explain what has always been a curious source of strength in his work, his inclination to write almost exclusively about the life of a young man from the small Pennsylvania town he usually calls Olinger that seems very like the Shillington, Pa., that John Updike remembers from his own boyhood. Like all American romantics, that is, he has an irresistible impulse to go in memory home again in order to find himself. The epigraphs of his first book, which is dedicated to his parents, have to do with the importance of memory to desire and of family love, “within the light of which/ All else is seen.” The precise recollection of his own family-love, parental and marital, is vital to him; it is the matter in which the saving truth is incarnate.
Thus, in “The Persistence of Desire,” Clyde Behn goes home to see an eye doctor and entangles himself with his childhood sweetheart, thought they are both now married, with the result that “the maples, macadam, shadows, houses, cement, were to his violated eyes as brilliant as a scene remembered; he became a chid again in this town, where life was a distant adventure, a rumor, an always imminent joy.” Thus Allen Down in “Flight,” remembering what looks like this same girl and his mother’s jealousy of her, reconstructs a glowing world of details about his grandfather and grandmother (who turns up in several other stories), of school and classmates, of dances and debates. It is a meticulous, loving and beautiful re-creation, and Mr. Updike’s mind probes it with the delicacy of a surgeon, seeking what makes it in memory seem “an always imminent joy.”
Even the knowledge that it was not the shelter from nothingness that it now seems comes to him as a memory of how he got up his nerve to tell Mary Landis, the most mature and mysterious of his classmates, that he loved her, only to discover that she was having a bitterly unhappy love affair with an older man. “You never loved anybody,” she said. “You don’t know what it is.” It is true. Now, he can remember what he thought then with a schoolboy’s uncertain insight — “after all, it was just a disposition of his heart, nothing permanent or expensive; perhaps it was just his mother’s idea anyway” — as true in a way he had not than been able to imagine.
It always seems to Mr. Updike, as he says of his grandmother, “necessary and holy to tell how once there had been a woman who now was no more,” to tell everything, “all set down with the bald simplicity of intrinsic blessing thousands upon thousands of pages; ecstatically uneventful; divinely and defiantly dull.” This conviction of the “unceasing and effortless blessing” of life when it is rightly apprehended makes Mr. Updike the kind of religious writer that every serious romantic must be.
The intensity with which he perceives this intrinsic blessing of life, however, seems to him incommunicable. Writers, he believes, “walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of themselves.” These observations all come from “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island,” one of two experimental stories at the end of “Pigeon Feathers,” in which Mr. Updike puts together three wholly unrelated episodes that seem to him images of life blessed, images that would be, if he could wholly invoke them, full of joy, “just as a piece of turf torn from a meadow becomes a gloria when drawn by Duerer.” But he despairs of realizing life that fully. “As it is,” he tells the reader, “you, like me, must take it on faith.”
This is not, of course, faith in the conventional sense; one should not be misled by Mr. Updike’s frequent references to clergymen and church services: these are the accidents of his subject-matter, of the Olinger that he remembers. But a religious sense of the sacredness of life itself, with its accompanying sense of the absolute horror of death, is at the very center of his perception.
As he says in the almost too brilliant story, “Lifeguard,” “Young as I am, I can hear in myself the protein acids ticking; I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence feel my death rushing toward me like an express train.” The lifeguard of this story is concerned with the life of the spirit, and what he knows is that “every seduction is a conversion.” “Someday,” he believes, “my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.” To have that vocation is to be saved by saving, by experiencing a love that is intensely and specifically physical, because “our chivalric impulses go clanking in encumbering biological armor.”
This is the special significance of the second large group of stories in “Pigeon Feathers,” the recollections of married love. Like the episodes of married love in “Rabbit, Run,” they are unqualifiedly candid because they are dealing with the supreme moment, the moment at which the blessedness of life realizes itself, in the vivifying context of family life, with the maximum intensity — or seems, in memory, to have done so.
“Pigeon Feathers” is not just a book of very brilliant short stories; it is a demonstration of how the most gifted writer of his generation is coming to maturity; it shows us that Mr. Updike’s fine verbal talent is no longer pirouetting, however gracefully, out of a simple delight in motion, but is beginning to serve his deepest insight, that his “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and even his “Romeo and Juliet” (that is “Rabbit, Run”) are now behind him.