Which Blue Bus Is Calling Us? Faith, Atheism, and Death in John Updike’s Last Collection of Short Stories

This past weekend, T.C. Boyle reviewed, for the New York Times, John Updike’s posthumously published collection of short stories (17 of 18 of them written in the past decade), and Boyle noticed the theme of religious faith running through a number of them.

One of the stories, and one that Boyle regards as an especially successful one in the collection, concerns both faith and atheism:

[In] “The Walk With Elizanne,” Kern and his second wife go first to the local hospital to visit a classmate who is unable to attend the reunion because of her infirmity. Mamie is bedridden, emaciated, old, dwelling, as she says, in the “last chapter” of her life, and yet Kern remembers her as she was in kindergarten, remembers her mother, remembers the class plays where she was always “the impish little sister.” What sustains her — and him — is her religious faith, a theme that runs through many of the stories in this collection. Kern contrasts that faith with the “unresisted atheism” that “left people to suffer with the mute, recessive stoicism of animals.”

The mute, recessive stoicism of animals. Yikes. That’s not very, well, positive, is it? No sunny-slogan atheist bus ads for Updike?

The atheist and faith buses are calling us. But drivers, where you takin’ us?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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