Who, a year or two ago, could have imagined that October 2008 would heap on us so many tricks and so few treats? This Halloween season must have looked heaven-sent for publication of "The Widows of Eastwick," John Updike's return to the ravishingly wicked trio of his bestselling, gleefully raunchy 1984 novel, "The Witches of Eastwick."
Alas, in the present climate of volatility, a how-to book on raising guinea hens or starting a basement mushroom farm is likely to outsell all but the most escapist fiction. And "The Widows of Eastwick," notwithstanding its predecessor's stage and Hollywood successes, the fanciful subject and dazzling Updikean prose on full power, offers more hard truths than escape -- more Beckett than Bond.
Although the present story plays off many themes from the old, and is the richer for it, no worries: Newcomers who missed the pleasure of meeting the witches in their prime will nevertheless feel right at home in the Eastwick, R.I., of roughly today.
Without bogging down his tale, Updike reprises essential scenes of his three old girls' wayward past: How, as un-husbanded suburban mothers, they let their playful ventures into dark powers lead to a point where intoxicating liberty tipped to the chaos of killing at least one outside rival for the devil's affections. How, ostracized in their Puritan seaside town, the fun gone worse than stale, each witch conjured up her ideal second husband from bits of organic flotsam.
The coven of Alexandra the sculptress earth mother, Jane the vixen cellist and sensual "baby" Sukie fell apart. Each witch moved away, moved on in the American tradition, to live the next 30-odd years in sweet, respectable conjugal forgetting of what she had done.
"Widows" ranges through the consciousness of various characters but tacks closest to Alexandra. She is the best of a bad lot, according to the narrator, who is sort of an omniscient Voice of Virtuous Eastwick. "Alexandra," the report begins, "the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel. . . . "
And so we follow bereaved, bewildered Alexandra from her pottery kiln in Taos onto a tourist bus catering to those past a certain age into the Canadian Rockies. A sail down the Nile and a tour of the Great Wall of China come next on the itinerary after e-mails crisscross and Lexa is joined in widowhood and frequent-flier mileage by Sukie and Jane.
Whereas "Witches" started with a plotty bang -- Old Nick himself in the shape of hapless, highly leveraged Darryl Van Horne -- this time out, Updike is in no hurry to set a hook. The travelogues are entertaining essays-in-dialogue, where sharply etched scenery and fact-filled reflections on ancient lives mix with some boisterous, politically incorrect riffing on accents and stereotypes.
What ties these essays to the novel's core is the three friends' deepening journey into the discomforts and humiliations and endless surprise of becoming old: aimlessness, sex long since a mere memory and the "elderly bladder." Alexandra has to plead to her friends: "Don't you want to see the world, before we leave it? Once we break a hip and can't walk, we can't travel."
In Part 2, having tasted enough for now of the gaudy globe, the coven decides to return to the scene of its crimes: to seaside Eastwick for a nostalgic summer vacation. When they rent a condo in what had been Van Horne's mansion, "Widows" kicks into gear. Magic is back, malevolence in vogue. Old shades and new generations have been awaiting the return of the sinful trio. Jane, the jaded punster whose diabolic canine chewed up her cello, falls victim first. To reveal much more would be to violate the pact between novelist and reviewer.
At age 76, Updike can look back on an oeuvre of more than 30 titles (this rough sub-count excludes his poetry, essay volumes, children's books and other wordsmithing). Each volume has an indelible taste, offers some real delight and insight. Not one is superfluous.
Whether the American master who has received many other major prizes ever "Nobels" -- one hopes he doesn't give a darn -- here's a bet his work will keep fresh for generations, inciting laughter, wonder and sensuous shivers.
Updike's omnivorous curiosity can't be reduced to a trademark subject or three. The math teacher's son has tackled physics and metaphysics (in "S." as well as in "Widows," where understanding electricity is a diabolical key), wandered across taboo frontiers (African politics in the riotous "The Coup," race change in the under-appreciated "Brazil") and stripped his own soul, albeit with modesty ("Self-Consciousness," and the affecting story about his mother, "A Sandstone Farmhouse").
For all the range, Updike returns always to his central calling: as portraitist of our fleeting eras, political and social, and of the female body in all its lavish variety. In "The Widows of Eastwick," both receive ample attention.
Recently there's been a spate of novelists entering old age, publishing their discoveries and fears. Updike's approach is more oblique. He looks at age and death askance, through empathy with the adored and ever-mysterious other sex. He still wants to learn the language of women.
Back in the near-immortal '80s, "The Witches of Eastwick" was simple good, dirty fun; any philosophy it implied was pretty basic: Respect Nature, the Goddess rules.
"The Widows of Eastwick" contains undisguised inquiry. The question is not: Will good prevail over evil? The question is, is there a meaningful difference? In the end, Updike and his girls come down to a brave nihilism, shot through with the late, fading beauty of a certain fleeting emotion a witch can hardly name.
There are worse ways to confront one's demons.
Maristed is the author of several books, including the novels "Broken Ground" and "Belong to Me."