John Updike's My Father's Tears.

John Updike's My Father's Tears.

John Updike's My Father's Tears.

Reading between the lines.
June 8 2009 6:54 AM

The Examined, and Exhibited, Life

Updike was the consummate stylist with a blogger mentality.

John Updike's My Father's Tears.

With intimidating steadiness, right up until his death last January, John Updike went on doing what he'd done from the outset: He wrote and published, wrote and published. He wrested a first acceptance from The New Yorker in the summer he graduated from Harvard in 1954 and had released his first book, a collection of poetry, by 1958. Most subsequent years saw a new Updike volume and sometimes two. In the five months since he died, we've had two posthumous collections: Endpoint and Other Poems, issued in March, which served as a bookend to Midpoint and Other Poems (1969), and now My Father's Tears and Other Stories.

It has become almost a cliché to marvel over Updike's adherence to Henry James's dictum that the writer should be "one of the people on whom nothing is lost." For Updike, no meaningful experience went unrecorded and unpublished, ingeniously translated into fiction or verse. Over time, loyal readers began to feel a companionable connectedness not merely with his writing but with his much-photographed life. (He appeared on the cover of a number of his dust jackets.) You felt you knew his comings and goings, whether geographical or emotional, with a thoroughness usually reserved for your closest friends. This peculiar sense of familiarity surely goes a long way in explaining the extraordinary national outpouring of grief and admiration in the wake of his death. 

Among American writers of his generation, Updike was unusual in his comprehensive effort to get the entirety of his life into his fiction.  He certainly stands apart from Truman Capote, or Norman Mailer, or Philip Roth, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Anne Tyler—all of whose birthdates lie within 10 years of his. Yet a strange thing happened during his last decade: A different generation caught up with him. Updike seems less unusual when set beside a newer and typically much younger group of American writers: bloggers. Among them, too, we often witness an impulse to throw the whole of one's life onto the page—or the computer screen. 

This shift may be less a result of changing sensibilities than a simple change in technologies. Updike was privileged—deservedly so. There weren't many writers of his generation granted what was essentially carte blanche to fill row after row of New Yorker columns, or page after page of Knopf books, with whatever pleased them. Many bloggers, on the other hand, have no editorial team they must win over before their work materializes. What was once a rare privilege is now a common right. 

A story like "Morocco," which opens My Father's Tears, has some kinship with the sort of vacation blogs you'll find on the Internet. The story—one of the book's weakest—feels reportorial and autobiographical, an attempt to salvage, by way of entertainment, an exotic family vacation beset by minor difficulties and disappointments (chilly weather, currency problems, mazelike streets). 

Advertisement

Still, the difference between an Updike and a would-be Updike is of course immense and immediately felt. You experience it at the most basic, sentence-by-sentence level. Updike was the master of an effortless elaborateness that allowed him to express great subtlety—of nuance, of thought—without losing an impression of lucidity. He is one of those rare writers whom you never want to read without a pencil in hand, ever alert to the prickling possibility, even where a story or novel or poem seems to be flagging, that you will soon meet some verbal aptness that calls out to be noted now and pondered later.

There's an early example near the end of "The Happiest I've Been," which concluded his first collection of stories, The Same Door (1959). The narrator and his high school friend have begun a long dawn drive across snowy Pennsylvania, and the friend lights a cigarette: "A second after the scratch of his match the moment occurred of which each following moment was a slight diminution, as we made the long irregular descent toward Pittsburgh." The sentence is nothing more than an elaboration of the story's title, but with the heavy, rasping rhyme of "scratch" and "match," the somewhat grandiose "diminution," and the way in which this suddenly magical drive promises to come bumping back down to earth with the approaching lights and clangor of Pittsburgh, Updike effects a stunning conjunction of the lyrical and quotidian. He was 26 when this story was first published. 

And for another half-century he went on producing sentences as fine and fertile as this one. I felt a similar thrill, reading My Father's Tears, when I came upon this:

He gasped for breath, doggy-paddling back to the dock, and from this lower perspective saw the trees all around as the sides of a golden well, an encirclement holding him at the center of the circumscribed sky.

Advertisement

And this:

Except for her bust, abruptly outthrust in the eight grade, her physical attributes were precise rather than emphatic; she was like a photograph slightly reduced to achieve an extra sharpness. 

And these two, from my favorite of the new stories, "The Walk with Elizanne":

Her face displayed, along with that demure quick smile he could now remember—a smile that darted in and out—a good sense of herself, an established social identity momentarily set aside, for this occasion, like a man's jacket folded into an airplane's overhead bin. 

Advertisement

And:

Then he kissed her again, entering that warm still point around which the universe wheeled, its load of stars not yet visible, the sky still blue above the streetlights.

"The Walk With Elizanne" reintroduces David Kern—a Pennsylvania native and stand-in for the author—whose initial appearance dates back to The Same Door. We met him as a teenager; now, he's returned to Pennsylvania for his 50th high-school reunion, an event that naturally tilts his teenage years again into the foreground. (When the narrator of the title story, "My Father's Tears," remarks, "I have never really left Pennsylvania," he might be speaking for either Kern or Updike.)

In a dark book—My Father's Tears is probably the bleakest of any of Updike's story collections; for all the gorgeous prose, death and the disabling indignities that are its forerunners are ubiquitous—"The Walk With Elizanne" strikes a welcome counter-note. It scintillates with Updike's conviction, borne out in a lifetime of devotion to the writing desk, that the amassing of sharp-eyed observation can be salvational. 

Advertisement

At his reunion, David encounters someone he doesn't instantly recognize, a classmate named Elizanne, who, at the close of the evening, offers an unexpected and touching confession: "You were very important to me. You were the first boy who ever walked me home and—and kissed me." In the aftermath of the reunion, David undertakes a peculiar charge, which—as so often in Updike's fiction—requires a painstaking ransacking of memory. Shaped in equal parts by the "distorting lens of old age" and the riddled abiogenesis of art, David begins to reconstruct his fateful and yet nearly forgotten walk with Elizanne. 

Kern's pilgrimage is ultimately directed toward a kiss—a teenage girl's first kiss—but before arriving there he must reconstruct street after street of his largely vanished hometown:

David's walk with Elizanne must have taken him from the high school or its grounds along the Pike through the blocks of semi-detached houses, which above their porches held picture windows where seasonal decorations—orange-paper pumpkins and black-paper hats for Halloween, Christmas tinsel, Easter baskets—announced the residents' fealty to the Christian calendar. The trees along the streets changed from horse chestnuts in the old section where he lived to dense lines of Norway maples.

A reader can, in the midst of all this lovingly recreated specificity, almost lose sight of the notion that David's is ultimately a two-pronged spiritual quest. Memory must first be made to yield, but then the language of its surrender must be given a careful burnish worthy of this rediscovered world. You get the feeling, by the story's close, that David's restoration is richer than the distant, dwindled events that inspired it. Updike—a marvelous critic—was especially delighted by, and illuminating in his analysis of, art's paradoxes. And here's a prime example of an ancient and ever-new miracle: the copy that turns out to be brighter and sharper-edged than the original.