Monday, September 20, 2010

Short Story Monday: "A City of Churches" by Donald Barthelme

Prester is one strange town. It is made up entirely of churches. Donald Barthelme's story "A City of Churches" appeared in The New Yorker in 1973, but I came across it in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike.
The story opens:
"Yes," Mr. Phillips said, "ours is a city of churches all right."
Cecelia nodded, following his pointing hand. Both sides of the street were solidly lined with churches, standing shoulder to shoulder in a variety of architectural styles. ... "Everyone here takes a great interest in church matters," Mr. Phillips said.
Cecelia, who has come to town with plans of opening a car rental company, immediately wonders if she will fit in - especially since she is not very religious. Mr. Phillips replies that she may not be very religious yet,
"But we have many fine young people here. You'll get integrated into the community soon enough. The immediate problem is where are you to live? Most people," he said, "live in the church of their choice. All of our churches have many extra rooms. I have a few belfry apartments that I can show you."

He also questions the viability of her business proposal:
"Renting a car implies that you want to go somewhere. Most people are pretty content right here. We have a lot of activities. I don't think I'd pick the car-rental business if I was just starting out in Prester. But you'll do fine."
Although the town seems wholesome at first glance, the reader is left with a distinctly uneasy feeling that borders on creepy. I was reminded of The Stepford Wives. This was my first experience with Barthelme, and I plan to seek out more of his stories. Is there one you can recommend?

An abstract of this four page story can be found on The New Yorker website (subscribers have access to the entire text), but I also found it reprinted here.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. Sounds absolutely bizarre and fascinating! It sounds like something John Wyndham would have written if he didn't write sci-fi.

  2. It does sound like it will get creepy. I will have to add it to my favourites, so that I can read it when I get chance.

  3. The Stepford Wives is as creepy a book as I've allowed myself to read. I actually liked it. I agree that this story has that feeling. But I don't know about more by this author.

  4. John - It was, but I really liked it! Barthelme's name was familiar and I'm glad I finally got around to reading one of his stories.

    Vivienne - It can't get too creepy with just 4 pages, but it was enough to make me feel a little uncomfortable. Let me know what you think...

    Margot - I don't usually read anything too creepy, but this seemed to have just the right edge to it.

  5. Just the whole idea of a town of churches sounds sinister and how he said to the car dealer that she may not be very religious "yet"...sounds like a great story.

  6. Now this adds John Updike to my reading list. The opening of the story reminds me of Savannah, specifically Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Creepy.

  7. You certainly have me curious about this story. I just found a link to were the story can be read on the web:

  8. Staci - This was definitely a strange story... the more I think about it though, the more I like it.

    Matt - Updike edited this collection. He selected one story per year from 1915-1999. Of course, he's written many great ones himself, too.

    Teddy Rose - Let me know what you think... it kind of left me with an unsettled feeling.

  9. Sounds creepy. I'm going to have to read it.

  10. Loni - It certainly is a little creepy... hope you like it!

  11. I finally got around to reading it. Wow what a way to start out 2011. Here`s my review:

  12. Teddy Rose - I see this story creeped you out, too. Let me know if you find other good ones from this author.


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