- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009


By John Updike

Knopf, $25.95, 292 pages

Reviewed by Bruce Allen

Ever since the recently deceased (1932-2009) American master John Updike’s first books began appearing (almost exactly) a half-century ago, opinion has divided over the question of whether an author so technically accomplished can really be a substantial creator of lasting fiction.

Mr. Updike’s long-established reputation as an exquisite stylist has been used as a stick to beat him with, by readers and critics who seem to wish he were Robert Stone, or at least Joyce Carol Oates. Perhaps because Mr. Updike’s verbal precision and delicacy are unaccompanied by conventional restraint (he’s as sexually forthright as Henry Miller, for all the latter’s Rabelaisian bluster), even admirers of his fiction balk at fixing his star in the firmament occupied by the ambitious, life-seizing likes of Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller or Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.

Well, this longtime admirer is here to argue that Mr. Updike’s suave pastels and chiaroscuros attract the eye and inhabit the memory as insistently as do the broad strokes and sweeping flourishes of even the best (as I believe those listed above indeed are) of our postwar fiction’s adventurous world-builders.

Mr. Updike’s metier is the display of lives seen as compositions of numerous small moments — writ large in his own blockbuster, the tetralogy of novels focused on high school basketball hero and failed adult Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom; and captured in elegant capsule form in the dozens of crystalline short stories, produced with enviable diligence and finesse over five decades, which arguably constitute his finest work.

Perhaps one might evoke the once universally admired figure of Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), whom Henry James pronounced the “beautiful genius” of 19th-century Russian fiction; another elegant stylist, whose scrupulously constructed stories and novellas lack, indeed eschew, the psychological and symbolic power of Feodor Dostoevski and the scope and grandeur of Leo Tolstoy — yet achieve resonant universality through their taut concentration on strongly felt experiences of romantic, family and class contrasts and conflicts.

Similarly, the “action” of a typical Updike story focuses on a mind’s adventure, in its exploration of a world perceived to be changing, maturing and aging exactly as are we all.

Hence the raison d’etre and form of Mr. Updike’s posthumously published final collection. The dilemmas that its characters confront echo a seminal story published decades ago: “Pigeon Feathers,” in which a thoughtful adolescent, David Kern, is frightened by a fatalistic pronouncement, regarding our planet’s fate, uttered in H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History.” Inclined to pessimism but reassured by the beauty that resides in natural objects (such as the story’s title objects), the boy reasons hopefully that “a God [who] had lavished such craft on these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Such hopefulness pervades “My Father’s Tears” even as its contents assemble troubling evidence from the perspectives of memory, experience and imagination. For example, several stories analyze childhood’s perils and comforts: as endured by a bullied, hypersensitive only child who resigns himself to knowing that “he can never be an ordinary, everyday boy”; and a sheltered boy who dutifully adapts to the protective environment created by his doting, ever well-meaning parents (“The Guardians”).

But realism smashes through comfort zones, in stories of foreign travel that depict an American family’s visit to Tangier, and encounter with cultural paranoia (“Morocco”); tourists in India who react differently to the promises and demands of Hinduism (“The Apparition”); and the victim of a mugging during a Spanish vacation, who infers from a recognition of his own vulnerability the similar weakening of the world around him (“The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe”).

Decline takes multiple forms in stories that recall love, marriage and adultery, or relate attempts to re-experience such complex pleasures: we observe David Kern at his 50th high school class reunion, recalling adolescent romantic first steps and failures (“The Walk with Elizanne”); a long-married man’s flare-up of passion for the former lover who had chosen her husband over him, when she’s stung by a bee and nearly dies (“Delicate Wives”); and the “Outage” that afflicts a would-be straying husband when a summer storm causes power failures of more kinds than one.

Elsewhere, aging and failing men of imperfect good will take stock: the retiree (in “Personal Archaeology”) who discovers and imagines his family’s past while exploring on his own property; and the aged son who reconstructs his parents’ personal histories (in “The Laughter of the Gods”) by envisioning their lives as exclusively shaped by the experiences of conceiving and raising him.

Other old men, identifiable simulacra of the real John Updike, cast ironic glances toward the future. We encounter David Kern yet again (in “The Road Home”), walking through his own woods, becoming lost there, and struck with rueful awareness of where he’s really going. A psoriasis victim undergoes innovative treatment (in “Blue Light”), and begins to wonder what new complications may arise should he live longer than he’s expected to. And in “The Full Glass,” a near-octogenarian woolgathers about a lifelong history of physical impairment and need, concedes that centers can no longer hold and things indeed fall apart, yet settles genially for “drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.”

Thus does Mr. Updike bid us farewell. It’s time to return the favor, raise our own glasses, and give thanks — for the limpid beauty of his prose, the nobility of his embrace of human experience in all its exhausting fullness and, most of all, for the many memories.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer who lives and writes in Kittery, Maine.

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