Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories
brings together a collection of early short fiction pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author John Updike. First published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1962, these eighteen stories encompass familiar terrain that Updike would explore in even more depth in his future work: the struggles of small-town, middle-class Americans; the isolation and irony
of suburban ennui; and characters caught between their responsibilities to their families, their religion, their communities, and themselves.
In the title story, thirteen-year-old David and his family move to the farming community of Firetown, Pennsylvania, where his mother grew up. Though David's family moves around often and adjusting and adapting to new environments is old hat for him, this particular move doesn't sit well, and David has trouble settling in. To distract himself, he reads H.G. Wells's seminal work The Outline of History
. The book presents David with a version of human history he has never encountered before; what affects him the most is Wells's secular interpretation of the life of Jesus Christ. David begins to doubt the existence of God.
One night, he escapes to the outhouse to get away from his parents' arguing. There, a single insect lands on his flashlight. This seemingly minor event triggers a major crisis of faith and a deep, entirely new sense existential loneliness. In the flutter of insect wings, David's life changes.
Religion is a central part of David's life, now he finds himself at odds with what Sunday school, church, and catechism class taught him. Despite his own internal effort to find fault with Wells's denial of Jesus's divinity, David can't find a single one. He suspects that Wells may be right.
In catechism class, he asks Reverend Dobson about what happens to one's consciousness after death. Dobson gives a half-hearted explanation, but David presses him, much to the discomfort of his classmates (and the Reverend). Ultimately, Dobson admits that consciousness does not survive the death of the corporeal body.
David shares this news with his mother, essentially telling her there is no heaven. While she confesses that the notion of God is a human-made idea, divinity, she says, is a real, tangible thing; just look at all the natural beauty, technological advancements, and goodness in the world. David rather brusquely dismisses her theories as the product of the irrational female mind.
David's father takes the opposite tack. He thinks that life is just "garbage," and death can only be a relief, so it is nothing to concern oneself with in the present.
Neither of these viewpoints satisfies David. He continues going to school and church but still struggles to settle in, especially in light of his issues with faith.
Soon, David turns fourteen. His parents give him a rifle for his birthday, and his grandmother asks him to shoot the family of pigeons that have taken roost in the barn. When he does, one pigeon eludes the bullet, so David tracks it down and shoots it repeatedly. David's mother comes out and orders him to stop the shooting. When she sees what he has done, she commands him to bury the birds. As he does so, he sees that the pigeons' feathers are really quite beautiful. In that instant, his whole universe cracks wide open. He understands that if God devoted so much time to create such beauty in creatures as pedestrian as birds, then that is evidence enough of abundant beauty in the world. That, for David, is all the proof he needs of God.Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories
also contains the story "A&P," one of Updike's classic works of short fiction. It follows teenage cashier Sammy, who works at the local A&P grocery store. One summer day, a trio of beautiful girls his age—wearing only swimsuits—enters the store while he's working the register.
Sammy watches the girls as they shop. In his mind, he sizes up their looks and, based on this information, imagines vivid personalities for each one. When he hears the voice of the girl he has mentally christened Queenie, she sounds nothing like what he imagined.
Meanwhile, Sammy's manager, the crotchety Lengel, reprimands the girls for dressing inappropriately, and the next time they come in, he tells them, they must at least cover their shoulders. This admonishment embarrasses the girls and infuriates Sammy. He feels that Lengel has disrespected the girls and violated their dignity, so he pulls off his apron and quits. As he storms out of the store, he half-expects to find the girls outside, ready to thank him for his sacrifice. However, they already left and likely never even noticed his actions.
In both of these stories, as in all of Updike's fiction collected here, the author plumbs the depths of what it means to be lonely, to be both principled and flawed, to be a seeker, and, ultimately, to be human. The heroes of his stories don't possess superpowers or magical abilities. They are everyday folks whose crises of faith, of conscience, of heart, make them instantly, universally identifiable and relatable.