Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections.
[“Believers” was published in the July 1972 issue of Harper’s, after being declined by The New Yorker, and was collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
“Believers” is one of those annoying, self-indulgent, disjointed stories John Updike should have kept in his drawers. It is a set of eight vignettes (it’s too flattering a term) centered on a man called Credo, the name being a play on the title: it’s Latin for “I believe.” Even for the many tedious Updike autobiographico-theological essays posing as stories, this one snores loudly. None of the eight situations have much to do with each other, aside from involving Credo. None reveals anything, none surprises. The style is flat, the purpose flatter. The story should have been “Believer,” because only the first of the eight situations includes believers other than Credo. They’re in a church basement, wondering what to do with accumulated furniture before moving to a new, plastic church. Credo is depressed by the rubbish.
Next, he’s visiting his minister, who talks stock while Credo considers his “voluptuous blond” of a wife. Credo then surveys the new church and finds small discrepancies. “The foundation slab is already cracking.” That sets him off on a mini discourse about continental plates sliding (that was before the tectonic revolution in geology), ending on: “And yet it would have been nice had the Lisbon earthquake not occurred, and not given Voltaire a laughing point.” Credo appears to have given Voltaire the shallowest, most stereotypical of readings. There is no laughter in his “Poeme sur de desastre de Lisbone.” There is immense sorrow, ruefulness at god, despair. Voltaire was not in a humorous mood when he wrote about the death of thousands.
Credo then reads St. Augustine, hopefully more deeply, but he can’t handle him, it’s too much, though the quoted Augustine does not seem that overwhelming. Credo does not have much of a spine. Credo is next in a motel, having the requisite affair of the generic Updike short story. This, I believe. The episode elicits the sort of exquisitely written lines that impress at first, but wilt on second reading: “Because they are believers, their acts possess dimensions of glory and of risk; they are flirting with being damned, though they do not say this.” Then a funny: “To arouse her again, he quotes St. Augustine.” Credo is next in a hospital, recovering from the broken leg he suffered while playing touch football. That tells us these are fragments from the author’s autobiography: Updike had just suffered a broken leg while playing touch football.
Finally, he’s in the Boston-Cambridge subway thinking of a passage in the Venerable Bede, the early Medieval English theologian and scholar, about the evanescence of life and the mysterious dark at either end of it. Credo also makes the assumption that from the looks of him, a man across from him is an atheist, and he feels superior to him because he, Credo, is a believer, and the atheist is not, though the final line, suggesting the possibility that believers and atheists may be all alike, hints of redemption (for Credo). This “story” being taken entirely from Updike’s life, chances are the atheist will have one day read this story and reflected on Updike’s death, taking pity on him and hoping he was not burning in hell for having written such a terrible story, and for believing in such church-basement-like rubbish notions as hell.
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|