Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review: 'My Father's Tears and Other Stories'

The party line on John Updike is that, while his novels are pretty good, it’s his short stories that will be his true legacy. I’ve always resisted this notion, not because there’s anything wrong with Updike’s short fiction but because his novels are so good. It’s in the longer fiction that we see the extent to which, contrary to some critics, Updike had something to say—given 300 pages to stretch it out, he moves beyond his famous descriptive skills and endows characters like Rabbit Angstrom or Roger Lambert with real philosophical import. The stories, on the other hand, are over in a flash, and more than any idea, you remember the turns of phrase and the images their author packs in.

The problem is that Updike didn’t release a good novel in the last thirteen years of his life. His last winner was 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, which took everything he was good at and expanded it throughout four generations of would-be saints. It somehow hits all the things you associate with Updike—sex, death, popular culture, and religion—and puts them in an unfamiliar context, far from the dulleries of suburban wife-swapping that plagued late-period novels like Villages.

I’d mostly written Updike’s final decade off, in fact, after spending the first few months of 2009 reading Gertrude and Claudius, an interesting but not particularly successful “prequel” to Hamlet, and Terrorist, which tried its best to present a sympathetic portrayal of an Islamic radical but came out weak and flaccid. (It’s not quite as bad as everyone says it is, but it’s at best a noble failure.)

So reading My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, Updike’s final book, was a revelation. (I should say that it’s his final book as far as we know—one might imagine a Prince-esque vault full of unpublished fiction and poetry in Updike’s recently sold Beverly Farms estate, but given that the man published at the rate of 1.3 books per year, I find that prospect, however titillating, unlikely.) Updike had not lost his powers; he’d only lost the ability to express them in spurts of 300 pages. Indeed, the eighteen stories in this volume rank among his most effective work, bolstered by a new sort of melancholy one does not find in the best of his novels.

It’s impossible to read My Father’s Tears and Other Stories without thinking of Updike’s death, which followed the last story in the volume (“The Full Glass”) by eight months and which preceded the publication of the collection by five. With a few exceptions (“Morocco,” first published in 1979 and dealing with events a decade earlier, being the most obvious), Updike creates shadow-selves in these stories only to watch them decay or destroy them outright. There’s thus an air of suicide here, coupled with an obvious grasp at immortality, since Updike knows people will be reading his fiction long after his body has decayed.

The selves he presents us with are familiar—most of them could easily be Rabbit Angstrom or Piet Hanema or Roger Lambert, or for that matter, the Updike we discover beneath the fiction in his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. But, presented as they are in the winter of their lives, they are simultaneously unfamiliar. They’re aware of what awaits them in months of years, aware that the life they have drank so eagerly from for decades is about to slip through their fingers.

Their reactions vary; some, like our old friend David Kern, who shows up in two stories, do everything they can to recapture the past and make it part of whatever small future they have remaining for them. In “The Walk with Elizanne,” Kern meets his first girlfriend at his high-school class’s fiftieth reunion, discovers the secret meaning of life in male-female relationships:
Elizanne, he wanted to ask her, what does it mean, this enormity of our having been children and now being old, living next door to death? He had been the age then that his grandsons were now. As he had lived, he had come to see that for a man there is no antidote to death but a woman. Yet from where, he wanted now to ask Elizanne, does a woman draw this antidote, her cosmic balm? And does it work for her as well?
The story ends with a lovely description of the titular walk, one that redeems David’s sadness at the ravages of age and makes a sacrament of their innocence and exploration. David’s spiritual brother is the unnamed narrator of “The Full Glass,” who spends the story reminiscing on his attempts—successful and otherwise—to grasp life by the horns, to truly live it, to drink from a full glass.

Other characters can’t muster this effort. Martin Fairchild, the protagonist of “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” finds himself faced with a cruel and uncaring universe, devoid, the scientists tell him, of a benign or benevolent divine presence. He can transcend it only through the violence that is done to him, as when he is injured by a purse-snatcher in Seville.

But this strangely pleasing incident only goes so far, and Martin finds himself alone when he returns home. He retreats to his barn, the home of an ancient cupboard owned by his mother before her death, a home for “Souvenirs of a life of which Fairchild was the last caring witness” (151). The story’s Flannery O’Connor-esque ending allows him a final moment of transcendence of his memory and of the universe’s blind watchmaker.

Some of Updike’s protagonists finally learn morality in their final years. Updike has always been a frustrating novelist for his steadfast refusal to judge any character or to present any clear moral; combined with his own antinomian sexual history and his continued profession of belief in Christianity, he and his autobiographical characters have always been an enigma. But in several of these stories—“Free” and “Outage”—they finally learn to love their wives and submit to a conventional sexual morality. I can’t say much more without giving away the ending of the story, a move that violates Updike’s own rules for reviewing books—but it’s nice to see their author taking a stand for once.

The true gem of My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, however, is “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” written shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. Updike takes the point-of-view of four participants in the terrorist attacks—an Episcopalian who, like Updike, watched the towers crumble from Brooklyn Heights; Mohamed Atta, who hijacked Flight 11 and spends his section of the story in a strip club, drinking whiskey and trying to fit in; an elderly woman who witnesses the heroism of those aboard Flight 93, who prays for mercy seconds before hitting the ground outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and a bond trader on the top floor of the North Tower, who has his final conversation with his wife before jumping out the window.

Writing about such a horrific event, especially so soon after it happened, must be one of the very hardest thing an author can do, and numerous others—Don DeLillo comes to mind—have failed to produce compelling work out of the wreckage of the towers. But Updike succeeds largely because he refuses to draw conclusions; he presents these four stories without sentimentality and therefore succeeds in moving the reader. His use of religion is understated but effective; the Hand of God doesn’t appear in the wreckage, and the characters who maintain their faith in the face of tragedy do so for reasons even they don’t understand, which strikes me, at any rate, as accurate.

Aside from a few stories about his childhood—these have never particularly interested me—and a few that go nowhere (“Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage,” for example, is overwhelmingly boring and detracts from the overall mood of the collection), My Father’s Tears and Other Stories is a moving end to the career of the person who may be the quintessential fiction writer of 20th-century America. Anyone disappointed by Seek My Face or The Widows of Eastwick would be wise to turn here before writing off Updike’s final decade.

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