Books

Where the sidewalk ends

Our poet laureate of adultery and suburban angst, John Updike, died in January, which for some will imbue this collection with head-nodding solemnity. The story titles don’t help (“The Road Home,” “Varieties of Religious Experience,” “Personal Archaeology”), nor does the volume’s preoccupation with regret and reminiscence.

But these pieces are hardly aberrant Updike: The worm of mortality has always been gnawing its way through his prose, inspiring his heroes to hatch escape plans, wander from their beds, rue their fates and feel guilty for good fortune. What made Rabbit run, if not a fear of his own end?

What’s more significant about these particular stories — first published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Playboy and Harper’s — is how classically Updike they actually are: written with fluidity and humor, intelligence and wit about the elusiveness of happiness, contentment, grace — and good timing. “A Walk With Elizanne,” in which a near-elderly high school reunion attendee meets up with the first girl he kissed, is a small masterpiece of memory; the night in question both relived and re-created, the real Elizanne a denial of his dream.

But while Updike’s characters feel betrayed by reality, they’ve often enough betrayed themselves: In “Free,” a practiced philanderer named Henry learns to love his wife only after she’s long dead, and he’s discovered that a well-remembered lover has become coarsened by time. Or was she always this vulgar? To Updike, age is like vinegar, and even fantasies get pickled.

Updike had certain fascinations — art and science, broadly speaking, but specifically, painting and cosmology. Hence the Updike paradox: In canvas and oil lay immortality; in the stars, our insignificance and impermanence. By default, death, age and loss are our constant companions; they can even be our friends.

In “Varieties of Religious Experience,” perhaps the best-known story here (and one written — as was Updike’s novel “The Terrorist” — in the aftershock of 9/11), a bond trader named Jim Finch begins to smell jet fuel in his upper-floor office at the World Trade Center. He interrupts his clueless wife, calling from their mortgaged suburban home, to tell her it’s OK if she remarries. And then he begins to take flight.

“Connections were breaking, obligations falling away,” Updike writes. “He felt for these seconds as light as a newborn.”

The “responsible” life is a slave shackle, one we slip into without thinking: Brad, in “Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage,” is rendered incapable, mostly due to inertia, of extricating himself from a match that will inevitably lead to rancor. (And, if he still has the energy, unfaithfulness.)

Updike’s characters are large children who have never successfully sloughed off the awkwardness of puberty. They’ve simply found different ways of compensating. This may be why children, as such, are largely missing in “My Father’s Tears” while childhood itself is critical.

Two stories, “The Guardians” and “The Laughter of the Gods,” are both chronicles of growing up. The former is about a boy who is made the adored focus of his entire family’s attention, so that when they all die, he’s cosmically alone. The latter is about a kid whose parents are so preoccupied with each other — not happy, just fixated — that he exists in isolation.

The way Updike strips away the Presbyterian solace of his characters’ godly universe recalls Beckett. But this isn’t something new to “My Father’s Tears.” In Updike’s writing, it’s always been there. That the author isn’t anymore simply makes the world seem more lonesome.

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