Updike Writes About Unhappy People

PIGEON FEATHERS, by John Updike '55. Knopf, New York, 278 pp. $4.00.

THE people in John Updike's world are tormented. They live with a continual, painful awareness of their fruitless past, their foolish present, and their ultimate doom.

The seventeen short stories in Pigeon Feathers are, for the most part, concerned with these people. The farm boy in the title story is typical--stunned by the new found consciousness of his own mortality, he finds relief and a certain reconciliation by methodically killing barn pigeons. So is the young American at the British drawing school of another story whose attempts to court a fellow student are as inorganic and stiff as the objects he paints in his still life.

In "The Doctor's Wife," a young man is suddenly flooded with deep and impersonal shame by a casual insinuation that his tanned wife is part Negro. In a different story, a high schol debater pursues a girl disliked by both family and his friends to balm the hurt of a debating defeat. Both young men are the victims of a grinding anguish.

Few of the characters are only older than Updike himself (30); most of them are either adolescents or young married people. A good many of the stories are autobiographical, yet they are not simply New Yorker-ish reminisces. There is a certain digested quality about them which compresses and transforms the commonplace events Updike relates, and gives them a wider and often surprising significance.

Updike is the master of small details and everyday events; he builds his stories like stalagmites, the sum of countless small accretions. In earlier volumes, he clearly demonstrated both his painter's eye and his remarkable facility with words. What is new in Pigeon Feathers is a more intense discipline than he has shown before. Gone are the pages of minuitae which continually threatened to bury and bore readers of his second novel, Rabbit, Run His latest short stories are cleaner, tighter, and more skilfully constructed than anything he has ever done before.


His sense of language is sure, and nowhere more evident than in one of his last stories, "Lifeguard." The whole story is an extended metaphor about a divinity student who abandons theology each summer to work as a lifeguard. Updike articulately examines the strange congruence of "texts of the flesh" and those of the mind. At every point, the lifeguard's vision--and the author's--is unique. "Each morning," says the guard, "as I mount into my chair, my athletic and youthfully fuzzy toes expertly gripping the slats that make a ladder, it is as if I am climbing into an immense, rigid, loosely fitting vestment." In a deceptively smooth metaphoric stream, the lifeguard comments on life and love, sex and salvation from his singularly vantage point.

In many ways, the attitude of the lifeguard is close to Updike himself. The lifeguard performs the function of a sense organ; he is paid to observe closely the world around him. Updike, too, is concerned with the sensory experience. This is the basis for in details. But for Updike not enough to live life; one must understand the significance of individual experience.

This is a notion which runs all the stories. Life has the meaning is not grasped the wasted. Generally, the significant an experience is intensely and uncommunicable. One reasons Updike's people are is they are locked in the emotions, unable to express their thoughts and fears to themselves. Whenever they do share their feelings, as does the husband in "The Crow in the they fail.

UPDIKE is exploring subtle and it is to his credit handles them so capably. the stories in this collection could been simpering, others just are aided by the author's fresh the world he sees. His is a which sees bright. A students by A's as if by acnc," or ordered table in the evening light cups and glasses broken into by shadows." He describes a man's first kiss this way: "Her smeared in little unflattering the skin around her mouth; it I had been given a face to the presence of bone--skull under teeth behind lips--impeded me."

His skill at phrasing is extraordinarily. One character he recalls he had smoked in front of his mother he felt "It had been like making forgivable but unsightly." Updike an angry store way: "His face was dark gray back stiff, as he'd just had an of iron...."

Updike, as a writer, is still . He does not seem to have approached the limits of his artistic . Pigeon Feathers both in his immense potential, and, at the time, firmly establishes John as one of the finest young America today.