Pigeon Feathers by John Updike, 1961
The magic trick:
Structure, structure, structure
I’m not so good at noticing the structure of a short story unless I’m specifically looking for it. I wasn’t looking for it when I read “Pigeon Feathers,” but it was too obvious to miss. Updike unfolds the story very meticulously. He’s in no rush. No hurry. David, our 14-year-old protagonist, sees his conflict develop from adjusting to a new hometown to the adjustment of child to adult to, finally, everybody’s favorite religious, spiritual, existential debate about the afterlife.
His crises never hit a fever pitch. It’s a story of thought more than action. When the action does finally present itself – David has to clear out some pigeons from his family’s barn by shooting them – Updike doesn’t play it up for drama. He keeps the focus on the boy’s thoughts and the boy’s resulting philosophy.
Structurally, it’s an extraordinarily linear story, tracking the boy’s internal crisis from beginning to resolution. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.
Then, before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells’s account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.