Roger Lambert, fifty-two as the novel begins, is a professor at an unnamed New England divinity school. Fourteen years earlier, he left the ministry and divorced his first wife, Lillian, to marry his present wife, Esther (fourteen years his junior), with whom he had been having an affair. They have an adolescent son, Richie, a comfortable existence, and a marriage soured by boredom, petty bickering, and the passage of time.
That is the status quo, thrown off balance by the remaining two of the novel’s quartet of main characters. Dale Kohler (“like the plumbing”), a perpetual student in his late twenties, comes to Roger’s office with an entree: He has news of Roger’s niece, Verna Ekelof (daughter of Roger’s half-sister), nineteen years old and the mother of a baby girl born out of wedlock; the father, a black man, is not on the scene. Verna has left her Cleveland home (or been driven out by her ultra-religious father) and is living in a largely black housing project in the same city where Roger teaches.
Dale’s principal motive for introducing himself, however, is to gain Roger’s support for a grant application. Modern physics, Dale claims, offers indisputable proof of the existence of God, if only scientists would lay aside their prejudices; it is his grandiose conviction that, given enough computer time, he could establish such proof.
Roger finds this notion both naive and repugnant, and Updike clearly endorses his protagonist’s claim that faith in God must remain precisely that--a matter of faith. Yet the conflict between Dale and Roger is not...
(The entire section is 657 words.)