Updike’s hymn to indomitable life

My Father’s Tears and other Stories
John Updike
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

A DECADE or so ago, I read an interview with John Updike that was illustrated with a photograph of the author on a ladder painting his mother’s wooden home in Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania, or some other rustic setting.

He was in his late 60s at the time, yet here he was, the dutiful son, the Protestant ethic personified in the simple, seasonal labour of preservation, as the generations before him had done.

In My Father’s Tears & Other Stories, Updike celebrates this continuum from the perspective of an old man, an old man, I might add, who was far from finished with the lifelong task of taking the short story to a higher level in structure, imagination, and expression. As a man of letters, he had nothing to prove before his death. As a short story writer, his reputation was secure.

Nevertheless, at 77 years of age, it is inevitable that one’s range of life experiences, or one’s use of those experiences, will echo, as they do in this collection.

The Guardians is delightfully written from the point of view of an only child who lives with his parents and grandparents in a tension-filled home, where “he felt the four adults as sides of a perfect square, with a diagonal from each corner to a central point. He was that point, protected on all sides, loved from every direction.”

In old age, Lee recalls the guardians’ positive traits, traits for which he has become a repository, and reflects upon his father’s assertion that “what was was, and tended to be the same, generation after generation.”

In Kinderszenen, Toby, the single child, again lives with four grown-ups, “Mother, Daddy, Grandfather, and Grandmother – the same way the house has four sides.” The image is repeated, as is the motif of simmering discontent beneath the surface of life as Toby sees it. In Kinderszenen, the discontent finally boils over when the boy gets into a brawl during a softball game and his schoolteacher father looks on “trying to forget his worries and watch the game, trying to blend in.” The mother strikes his tormentor on the head and, for good measure, wheels about and slaps the father on the face “for just standing there and letting nature take its course.”

Of the collection, all but one story, Morocco, were written post-2000 and, at times, there is a sense of the master just going through the motions, as though he were performing his daily scriptorial press-ups. Yet, there are gems within: Free works through another recurring theme of marital infidelity; My Father’s Tears delightfully juxtaposes a fractured marriage with the family fractured by time; Varieties of Religious Experience opens with the intimidating “There is no God,” and, thereafter, masterfully revisits the Twin Towers atrocity from four different perspectives.

My Father’s Tears & Other Stories is a collection written by an older man who still sees the short story form as a means of plumbing the depths of memory to reveal the formative influences that go to make ‘everyman’.

Updike looks through the eyes of babes to interpret the past, to draw out of his middle American upbringing a world view that allows him to be at peace with himself. This parent-child dynamic yields some of the better stories in the collection, while also underlining the author’s wisdom on the subject of tyrannical time: “But my father did foresee, the glitter in his eyes told me, that time consumes us – that the boy I had been was dying if not already dead, and we would have less to do with each other.”

And suddenly, Updike’s boys are men, and the men are aged, and the aged become the protectors/guardians of the American way.

At times, the substance and plot lines of the tales appear slight, in relation to the grand formality of the form. And it is the mastery of the form, the incisive language, the mind-boggling pertinence of his imagery that make you realize that this volume is less a hymn to old age than a bravura performance, a hymn to indomitable life.


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