My Father’s Tears, by John Updike
Although an air of valediction inevitably hovers over this collection of short stories, the last of John Updike’s more than 60 books and published in the wake of his death, it is in no way a depressing read. On the contrary: there is something exhilarating about finding him maintaining to the very end not just his brilliance of observation and narrative but his passionate appreciation of life.
Updike’s writing has often been unapologetically autobiographical; his biographer will not have to decode the life from the work. These stories, apart from the first, a tale of an uneasy family holiday in North Africa in 1969, were all written and published during his last decade, and all of them reflect the preoccupations of an aging man; health, family difficulties, the waning of sexual passion, the continuing search for love. But in Updike’s hands these trials are not so much tiresome as heroic, and irradiated by bright gleams of memory, humour and wisdom. When Henry, recently widowed, impulsively drives to Florida to find Leila, the woman he had been thrillingly unfaithful with decades before, he finds ‘a tiny woman, her nut-coloured face criss-crossed by wrinkles’, with whom he has nothing in common; but he also realises that their affair had been a gift to them both, a setting free, or ‘as free as things get’.
Freedom, in Updike’s writing, is a mixed blessing. His heroes (he writes more, and better, about men than women) need to escape from their parents, their home towns, their regular jobs and, often, their wives; but in these stories he demonstrates over and over again, in loving, precise detail, how there neither can nor should be any escape from memory. David, at a high school reunion, meets the girl he first walked home and kissed, and is instantly swamped with recollections of her uniform in the marching band at football matches, the high white boots and gold striped maroon jacket, the strapless taffeta dress she wore to a dance later and how his rented tux grew damp with sweat. Updike has always been the master of turning the ordinary into art.
Most of his stories, like his novels, have been set geographically and emotionally close to home, which for him was always the towns and suburbs of Pennsylvania and New England. In this collection, though, several of the strongest stories move onto different territory. ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ takes four people caught up in the huge drama of 9/11. Dan Kellogg, visiting his daughter in Brooklyn, sees the towers collapse; through
the myriad pieces of what seemed like white cardboard fluttering within the smoke’s dark column … as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silver rippling noise.
Only Updike, one feels, could pull off this exquisite, terrifying, suggestive image. As well as the mounting fear of a woman caught on the plane brought down by its passengers, and a businessman on the phone to his wife from inside one of the towers, Updike enters the mind of one of the Muslim perpetrators, a feat he extended in his ambitious novel Terrorist, published in 2006. Of all the attempts to deal with the national trauma in fiction, Updike’s is the boldest and the best.
Two other stories take his characters on journeys abroad, where they find they are not too old to be galvanised by encounters with danger and sex. Fairfield, visiting Seville with his dominating wife, is laid low by a mugger, but finds the experience curiously pleasing: ‘Everything in Spain had felt closer. There had been contact.’ In ‘The Apparition’, a man on a group tour of India, stirred by steamy heat and erotic temple sculptures, finds the bronze hair and lithe body of a fellow traveller disturbing his dreams. In bed with his wife, ‘he rejoices to be tasting lust’s folly once more, though the dark shape he was lying upon, fitted to him exactly, was that of his body in its grave.’
It is hard not to see the last story of all, published in The New Yorker in May 2008, as a farewell wave by Updike to his readers. In ‘The Full Glass’, an old man reflects on why he always needs to fill his bedtime glass of water to the brim. It is not, he decides, just because he needs it to take his pills or because water is good for him. He thinks back over the drinking fountains and ice-cold springs of his youth, that made him ‘eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another.’ That eagerness is what all John Updike’s writing, not least this final volume, so wonderfully celebrates.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 11, 2009