"Licks of Love" by John Updike

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LICKS OF LOVE Short Stories and a Sequel, 'Rabbit Remembered' By John Updike; Alfred A. Knopf: 360 pp., $25

"Infidelity," reflects Frank, epicenter of the story "Natural Color," "widens a couple's erotic field at first, but leaves it weaker and frazzled in the end. Like a mind-expanding drug, it destroys cells." "These women who showed up at his readings," thinks the character Bech in another story, "His Oeuvre," "these women he had slept with were saying . . . we are your masterpieces." "You can go to the dark side of the moon and back," thinks Eddie Chester in "Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War," "and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women manage to get together." These three quotes form a sort of Pythagorean wall delineating the sum of John Updike's interests in this odd collection. Chester gets a squared, Frank and Bech hold the other two corners of this suffocating geometry. Middle-aged men crouch inside these lines. Women float around the outskirts: not women you've ever met, not women with any identifying marks not inflicted by their relationships to men. The stories are painstakingly written; effort shows on every page. There's too much detail, too much retelling of the characters' most ordinary thoughts. Most of the stories, except for "The Cats" and "Oliver's Evolution," feel unfinished; summarily ended, as though Updike simply shrugged. As for "Rabbit Remembered," this is what the word "banal" was meant to define. Updike, when not at his best, can remind a reader of those pallbearers of the ancient world whom Christopher Columbus tried so eagerly to convince. "The world is flat!" they shouted. "The world is flat!" he repeats. His horizon is all Freudian. Men and women are polarized in the corners of this universe.

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