- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003


By John Updike

Knopf, $35, 844 pages


Now in his early 70s, John Updike has published more than 50 books — novels, essays, poems — and won just about every literary prize except the Nobel, so the issue of his collected short stories (Volume 1) prompts the kind of questions that come with a retrospective. Is this prolific and gifted author destined to be America’s John Galsworthy, the British novelist lauded in his lifetime and forgotten afterward? Or is he our Marcel Proust, recording the nuances of our middlebrow society, our insouciant bourgeoisie, in prose too elegant and effete for its subject?

Mr. Updike, for his part, includes neither writer among those who influenced him, instead recognizing debts to Ernest Hemingway (“it was he who showed us all how much tension and complexity unalloyed dialogue can convey”), Franz Kafka and John O’Hara, and to Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce and Anton Chekhov, among others. Clearly, the author of novels as diverse as “Couples,” “The Centaur” and “The Coup” has wide sympathies and a flexible mind.

Yet readers tend to identify Mr. Updike with suburban angst (a word so close to the surname of his best-known creation, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom); we too often ignore the restless experimentation running throughout his remarkable career. He tried out magic realism, allegory and fable when he grew tired of the novel of manners.

Ironically (and Mr. Updike is, above all, an ironist), his short stories, or at least the 103 assembled in this collection, are conventionally well-wrought. In the early Sixties, he notes in the foreword, he was supporting a family of six by selling stories to the New Yorker, having moved from Manhattan to Ipswich, Mass. “The real America seemed to me ‘out there,’ too homogenous and electrified by now to pose much threat of the provinciality that people used to come to New York to escape,” writes Mr. Updike. “Out there was where I belonged, immersed in the ordinary, which careful explication would reveal to be extraordinary.”

Mr. Updike opens “Early Stories” with his Olinger tales, originally published as a Vintage paperback in 1964, Olinger being a stand-in for the small town outside Reading, Pa., where the writer grew up on a farm. The anthology proceeds chronologically, not so much by date of composition, but by life experience, his protagonists graduating to college, marriage, family life and divorce, paralleling Mr. Updike’s own progression.

Fans will recognize his signature stories, a number of them having lent their titles to earlier collections — “Pigeon Feathers,”“TheMusic School,”“Museumsand Women” — as well as his Maples series and his poignant monologues, especially “A&P;” and “Wife-Wooing.”

“What soul took thought and knew that adding wo to man would make a woman?” writes Mr. Updike in the latter. “The difference exactly. The wide w, the receptive o. Womb … Seven years since I wed wide warm woman, white-thighed. Wooed and wed. Wife. A knife of a word that for all its final bite did not end the wooing. To my wonderment.”

Mr. Updike’s love of language, self-consciously on display in this playful passage, animates his best work, illuminating his instinctive eye for detail and amplifying his perfect pitch for the spoken and written word. Is there any other author who so effortlessly, so adroitly, puts his observations on the page, or who does it so mellifluently? He announced his talent from the start, in the first paragraph of the first story he wrote for publication, “Ace in the Hole,” a story, by the way, that would grow in his imagination until it sprang fully formed as the novel “Rabbit Run.”

“The Five Kings were doing ‘Blueberry Hill,’” writes Mr. Updike in “Ace,” his character sitting in his car after work, having just lost his job; “to hear them made Ace feel so sure inside that from the pack pinched between the car roof and the sun shield he plucked a cigarette, hung it on his lower lip, snapped a match across the rusty place on the dash, held the flame in the instinctive spot near the tip of his nose, dragged, and blew out the match, all in time to the music.”

The confidence of that sentence, the ease and grace with which he establishes character while forwarding the narrative, signaled his genius.

Mr. Updike can be faulted for indulging puerile preoccupations (with sex and golf) or for overdoing introspection (his characters live inside their heads even when negotiating the world), but he rarely writes poorly. Every story in this book is rewarding in some way, and quite a few are brilliant.

Take, for sake of illustration, “The Gun Shop,” written in 1972, a more or less typical effort buried in the middle of the collection. Ben Trupp, a Boston lawyer, has brought his family — his wife, son and two daughters — home to his boyhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving with his parents. Murray, 14 years old, takes advantage of these trips to shoot his father’s Remington .22, an antique that otherwise sits idle.

This time the gun won’t fire, putting Murray into a foul mood that threatens to ruin the holiday. In part to placate the boy, in part to prove himself useful, Ben’s father arranges for the local gunsmith to examine the rifle that evening.

The three go off into darkest Pennsylvania, land of ranch houses, aluminum trailers and cinder-block Pentecostal churches with neon signs proclaiming that Jesus lives. They find the home of the gunsmith, Dutch, an old machinist with a hemispheric belly and battered hands “so long in touch with greased machinery that they had blackened flatnesses like worn parts.”

Dutch is jerryrigging a shell reloader for his friend, Reiner, when they arrive.

It’s an awkward visit. Grandpa Trupp does his best to make introductions, but the space between the worlds of Ben and Murray, and that of Dutch and Reiner, is too full of suspicion and jealousy — Ben of Dutch’s evident skill with firearms, Dutch of Ben’s big-city manners. Murray is coaxed into explaining his skiing prowess as Ben stealthily watches Dutch lathe a firing pin for the .22. Meanwhile, Reiner launches into a monologue on the North Vietnamese using illegal bullets. “The Geneva Convention says you can’t use a soft bullet that mushrooms inside the body like the dumdum,” he explains, “but hit a man with a bullet tumbling like that, it’ll tear his arm right off.”

The story ends as it began, with father and son heading out to shoot tin cans with the now-functioning rifle. Nothing much has happened, no one has had an epiphany, yet the two have been subtly changed, drawn closer together, arrived at a new understanding of each other from their experience of another world. In some ways, however, the heart of the story is Grandpa Trupp, not Ben or Murray. Frail, nearing death, yet strong in spirit, he is Ben and Murray’s link to the past, Dutch and Reiner’s link to the future — a soon-to-be missing link that goes to the heart of America’s cultural divide.

At risk of sounding glib by pursuing this metaphor, Mr. Updike himself is a link destined to go missing. His interest in God and religion, omnipresent throughout this collection, seems old-fashioned, of another time, like the ten-cent Cokes the residents of Olinger buy from vending machines. He has a fondness for clergymen, and his secular characters wrestle with ecclesiastical consciences as though, like the author himself, they have studied Augustine and Kierkegaard.

“He slipped into the familiar arguments he used with himself,” writes Mr. Updike in “Dentistry and Doubt,” describing the Rev. Burton, primed with Novocain, musing over the theological implications of anesthesia as he watches sparrows flit in a tree outside the surgery window. “He thought of the world as being, like all music, founded on tension. The tree pushing up, gravity pulling down, the bird desiring to fill the air, the air compelled to crush the bird.”

The interaction between the minister and the dentist is punctuated with Updikean touches (“Burton’s heart beat like a wasp in a jar as the dentist moved across the room, performed an unseeable rite by the sink, and returned with a full hypodermic”). These are the ordinary moments that became the stuff of Mr. Updike’s extraordinary career. A nice example of the author fulfilling the task he set for himself when, moving out into America, he began to send off dispatches, as he puts it, “from a territory that would be terra incognita without me.”

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

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