John Updike wrote more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. He died in January 2009.
“Classically Updike . . . written with fluidity and humor, intelligence and wit about the elusiveness of happiness, contentment, grace.”
“A haunting collection of heart-wrenching narratives . . . The evocative nature of the stories in My Father’s Tears echoes the melancholy of Chekhov, the romanticism of Wordsworth and the mournful spirit of Yeats.”
“My Father’s Tears is vintage Updike, its honesty and courage vaulting it to the top tier of its author’s many short-story collections.”
“A self-conscious salute to a grand career of imagining and gorgeously describing our America, along with a wink of gratitude to those readers who have shared the journey.”
“Here, then, on display one last time, are the cardinal virtues of a writer who bestrode the American literary landscape for more than a half century: a virtuosic talent for sensual description, the seemingly effortless weaving of image and theme, and an almost Proustian capacity to absorb the reader in the quiddities of childhood and adolescence.”
I’m certainly no Updike expert: I didn’t attend the annual Updike conference in rural Pennsylvania, and I haven’t read all of his books (I’ve only worked my way through seven of his fifty plus publications). But, years ago, in a crowded bookstore, I found a beautiful hardcover edition of his Rabbit books, read the introduction, and was won over by his ambition. Since then, it’s been a steady — albeit often questioned — love affair.
Apparently I’m not supposed to like John Updike. At least that is what a friend told me who has a Master’s in English Literature (which I’m pretty sure means he has the authority to declare things like that). Apparently women don’t like Updike. His writing is too masculine, too mysogonistic, too preoccupied with things like politics and unsentimental sex (so much sex!) to be liked by women. You know, because women don’t care to sully themselves with things like the economy and civil rights and realistic descriptions of sex.
So here is my potentially contra-feminist confession: I love John Updike. I love how he writes painfully flawed characters. I love how his characters, more than other authors’, feel like real people who really fuck up. I also love how, as a reader, I cringe and shake my head in shame when they cause their own tragic downfalls. And you know what? I also really like Updike’s depiction of sex. It is unremarkable, awkward, and impeccably described. (Who could ever forget how Updike describes the specific sensation of anally penetrating a woman in Rabbit is Rich? If you read it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t pretend like you don’t.)
But the tragically flawed and pervy uncle of Updike’s earlier work has turned succinct and wise in his final collection of short stories, My Father’s Tears. Published posthumously, these stories confront the brevity of life in a way that only an author who has lived his life to its outer edge could. The scope of the stories shows this sage perspective: they span entire lifetimes. They deal with the politics of the Depression and the different perspectives of September 11th. The protagonists, all in their 60s or 70s, struggle with the indifferent nature of life and death. They all seem to be asking in their respective nostalgia for childhood, young love, affairs, divorces, and the births of their children, “[W]hat does it mean, this enormity of having been children and now being old, living next door to death?”
But, where Updike’s earlier work featured characters who reveled in the novelty (and subsequent consequences) of life’s desires (adultery, power, money, etc.), this final collection seems to say something much different: passion only excites us momentarily, while the quieter times (the loyalty and constancy of a dying wife, for example) are what fulfill us. In this collection, the rare moments of lust and desire between characters never come to fruition, and old romances that have been heralded in memory are rendered insignificant in reality.
Intimacy, Updike seems to be saying in these final stories, does not come from brief, intense moments of passion. Instead it comes from shared experiences and survived hardships. Filled with wisdom and retrospect, these stories are some of Updike’s finest. His prose is strong and efficient. The rambling descriptions of town life that he was known for in his earlier work (and that I — yeah, I’ll admit it — tended to skip) have been set aside in favor of tight, well-crafted sentences that demonstrate the talent of an author at the height (and, unfortunately, the end) of his brilliance.