Reviewed here: My Father's Tears, by John Updike; Old Girlfriends, by David Updike
As Leonard Cohen wryly observed, "If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it, it's worse," an apt summation of the life and work of John Updike (1932-2009), one of the Western Canon's enduring talents destined, no doubt, to achieve the kind of immortality his son, David (who, incidentally, explores similar middle-class territorial angst), can only imagine for himself at the start of what promises to be a formidable artistic vocation.
Updike père's publisher recently released the double-entendre titled short-story collection, My Father's Tears, purportedly his 63rd work (spanning poetry, prose and criticism) to appear in print. Made up of short fiction written since 2000, its 18 entries revisit temporal, philosophical and geographical terrain well known to his legions of admiring readers following the punctilious stylist's various efforts, from New York (1958's The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures and, a year later, The Same Door: Short Stories) to Ipswich, Mass. (1963's The Centaur, the early Olinger series and much of the Rabbit saga - including the travails of Henry Bech as well as 2003's omnibus künstlerromantic achievement, The Early Years).
With My Father's Tears, something old, new and brilliantly blue dominates an understandably uneven set of narratives, a handful of which debuted in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's etc. Although the dominant elegiac tone often wanders dangerously close to the near-sloppily maudlin, the work's finest entries make of it not only a completist's must-own, it also provides both new and seasoned comers with an astonishing array of the variously beautiful weapons in Updike's linguistic/stylistic arsenal.
Invariably compared favourably with the work of Cheever, Irving, Proust, Bellow et al., the virtuoso's sharply honed showpieces issue from his preternatural abilities to inhabit the mindscape and enlarge the soulscape of each of his fully realized characters in situ. Whether traversing the chaotic and episodic quotidian or venturing into lovingly rendered dream states, each of his seemingly effortless - yet obviously near-obsessively polished - creations combines a kind of hope against hope or love of love. In his lifelong quest to locate le seul mot juste, Updike makes the mundane miraculous while simultaneously transforming it into a kind of diurnal distillation of all that was, is and shall immutably be.
Consider Personal Archaeology, a valedictorian lament in which the aging narrator, Craig Martin, takes stock of his intimately familiar yet paradoxically foreign relationship with the cyclical traces of life, decay, death and resurrection on parade across his small square of real estate: "In Craig's mind, the property had four eras before his … Craig dated most of the oddments he found in the woods - Mason jars, flowerpots, shotgun shells, rubber tires half sunk in the leaf-mould and holding a yellow oblong of scummy water, pieces of buried iron pipe, rusted strands of wire … carried the ghost of electricity; parts of a motorcycle engine, filmed with blackened grease, remembered a time when the steep old roads served a young man's racing game."
David takes up the torch and regularly illuminates the twin apprehensions of longing and reviling when it comes to the slings and sorrows of love
If one character's life flourishes in the residue of fecund objects redolent with association, another's blossoms during a near-epiphanous moment where existence begins and ends with a tantalizing glimpse of glorious transport when "the horizon springs a rim of lights" and "Nature drips a little anesthetic into your veins each day that makes you think another day is as good as a year, and another year as long as a lifetime. … I lift the glass, its water sweetened by its brief wait on the marble sinktop. If I can read this strange old guy's mind aright, he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned" ( The Full Glass).
At bottom, given the contours of love, wounds and damnation, readers will most likely revel in the true heart of Updike country since, of course, the one-time "chronicler of suburban adultery" - think Couples - never strays too far from his signature subjects nor flags in his lifelong appreciation of women, through whom he defines himself, particularly when reclaiming The Road Home in Blue Light or participating in high-school class reunions such as that encircling The Walk with Elizanne: "[H] wanted to ask her, what does it mean, this enormity of once having been children and now being old, living next door to death?"
The exquisite diamond among the glittering gems of unforgettable settings, foils and situations included here? It's the title tale, the consummately imaginative one whereby the resigned yet ultimately forgiving narrator returns, metaphorically, to that place where "the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition."
Given that My Father's Tears represents but a fraction of its condition insofar as the oeuvre of his "self" enters the question, it remains both unequivocally valued and wholly intact (despite an over-arching wistful sadness permeating much of the meticulous prose).
Read him, yes; but do not weep for the loss of one of the 20th century's originals, whose son David (born in 1957) - himself a summa cum laude graduate of the muddle-class school of furtive forays and soft knocks - takes up the torch and regularly illuminates the twin apprehensions of longing and reviling when it comes to the slings and sorrows of love, lust, apartheid and loss in his sophomore outing, Old Girlfriends, the follow-up to Out on the Marsh. (Until its publication, Updike fils devoted his time and impressive talents to photography and YA fiction.)
A solid, intriguing and quietly satisfying compilation, Old Girlfriends contains 10 generally well-crafted stories fashioned with a great deal of exhaustive description of classic cars, familial stars, near-invisible scars and, not surprisingly, cigarettes and cigars. Almost everyone smokes in these sensuously ruminative portraits of young men bumbling their way into fatherhood or mid-life respectability).
Naturally, the author harbours a particularly touching compassion for his slightly damaged yet ultimately redeemable characters, especially when he skillfully portrays the multifaceted essentials of truth and beauty on an extraordinarily natural scope, captured through the prismatic lens of an all-too-human fractured one.
In A Word with the Boy, Dad realizes his young biracial son has discovered that prejudice still looms largely in the heart of London darkness, while the narrator of Geranium learns his voyeurism, in symbiotic effect, supports an adulterous liaison's passionate flowering.
The opener features Trevor's interactions with his rumbustious psychotherapist, Sonya, an elegant character's character determined to aid the rather self-absorbed but certainly confused guy who, in tentative hope and teeming despair, seeks a viable solution to the way his ruinous relationships inexorably conclude. Adjunct tells the tale of listless instructor Robert, on the prowl for "that illicit spark of attraction that lent to the class a certain romantic undertone and, if nothing else, made the term go faster."
Old Girlfriends' va-va-vroomer by a country mile? In the Age of Convertibles: "A blue Fairlane, a lime-green Mustang, a grey Corvair: Back then we always had convertibles, and in the summer the roof was always open and we kids - brother, sisters, a few cousins and I - were always in the back seat, standing up on our dirty bare feet, eyes watering, scalps tingling, wind whipping our hair as we sped along toward the beach or ice-cream store, shouting and laughing in the warm summer wind. It was the sixties, after all, and my uncle Herman had gotten rich on the stock market and wore purple plastic beads and floral printed shirts, his hair hanging in a wispy curtain from his tanned and balding head."
Should readers not remember variations on this particularly well-oiled scenario, given its creator's obvious love and respect for sweeter times and less-complicated places? Once they've consumed its fierce generosity and suffused luminosity, they certainly will (with or without those wounds of love).
Contributing reviewer Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is completing her 30th work, a collection of poetry, slated for release next year.