God and Mr. Updike : IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES,<i> By John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf: $25.95; 490 pp.)</i>


In 1910, Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister in Paterson, N.J., loses his religious faith. Eighty years later, his great-grandson undergoes a religious epiphany as he dies by fire in a cult commune under attack by federal agents.

The Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth in John Updike’s panoramic novel, which swoops over America’s 20th century and wrings from our country’s spectacular material progress the eschatological ghosts that haunt it. “In the Beauty of the Lilies” (from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” verse that equates American destiny with Christ’s holiness) reverses Milton, however: Updike’s religious dimension is more nearly a matter of justifying man’s ways to God than the other way round.

These are the four generations of Wilmot-justifying:

Clarence, opposite to St. Paul, is knocked off his mount--a comfortably middle-class pastoral life--by a Darwin-and-Nietszche-assisted vision not of God but of no God. He ends his days peddling encyclopedias door to door and sneaking into afternoon movies. Teddy, shattered by his father’s fall, takes refuge in a small Delaware town to live out the American dream as American snooze, contenting himself with a placid marriage and a job as a postman.


Teddy’s daughter Esther, all looks and ambition, and with those afternoon movies in her gene-pool, becomes a Hollywood star of the 1940s and ‘50s. Clark, her hippie and ski-bum son, drifts into the Temple, a heavily armed apocalyptic cult that awaits an imminent Day of Reckoning in the Colorado mountains.

“Lilies” is a departure for Updike, a roman fleuve that takes up its characters, holds them in their segment of time and relinquishes them to make way for a new segment of time and a succeeding generation of characters. The author no longer walks with his protagonists but speeds by them; they are landmarks on a circular tour of American change and recurrence. Clarence loses faith, Clark finds it and their opposite motions are both disastrous. In between lies most of a century of national illusion: the movie-television-celebrity culture that has replaced our hard spiritual questions--for a while.

The four-generational panorama does not suit Updike’s strengths. His gift has been to find among some beautifully observed particulars a kind of transcendence that makes his people take on a glow beyond the realism he manages so well. “Lilies” is a full 80 years of particulars, though, and the summons to move on is so insistent--a “See Paris in Three Days” tour--that they become a blur unable to nourish or be nourished by those who successively pass among them.

True, the strengths are there, though outnumbered. Updike’s particulars and his chain of protagonists pause sometimes for a moment of magic. At the beginning, the portrait of the Rev. Wilmot losing his faith in his study, and over a heavy Virginia-ham dinner with his lay council, is a bravura performance. It is not the first time Updike does metaphysical doubt and debate, but he is good at it and loves it, and both qualities show.

Even the lengthy enumeration of Protestant theology in Wilmot’s library--44 volumes of Calvin’s “Commentaries”--is tedium with a wrenching bite. The middle-aged clergyman, alone with his doubts and his suddenly useless books-- “a comfortless wall . . . no longer a bulwark”--and with the sound of dinner preparations percolating through the door, is a portrait of despair (and faintly comic, as well). Illumination strikes:

“His mind was like a many-legged, wingless insect that had long and tediously been struggling to climb up the walls of a slick-walled porcelain basin; and now a sudden impatient wash of water swept it down the drain. There is no God.”


There are many other examples of what Updike does splendidly; for example, a witty portrait of a Presbyterian superior who uses Edmund Husserl and pre-existentialism and the virtues of doubt in an effort to persuade Wilmot to remain in the ministry. There is a moving portrait of his wife, outraged but resigned to the scruples that will cast them all into poverty--and living on into an oddly buoyant widowhood. There is Esther, emerging from childhood into a state beauty contest and discovering the drug-like rush of pleasure when a photographer shoots her first modeling portfolio.

These and other scenes make a vital fictional connection between character and social detail. Much else does not. The connection is there but the vitality is overwhelmed.

As Wilmot, no longer a clergyman, sinks in the economic and social scale, Updike gives an account of the devastating Paterson textile strike. The mill owners managed to lower wages for the sake of competitiveness--talk about recurrence!--and the strikers lost. When Wilmot goes to the movies we hear about the early one- and two-reelers and their stars. Several pages go to describing the small-town Delaware drugstore where Teddy works in the 1920s, along with lists of its patent medicines and beauty products.

Other pages describe the World War II home-front scene in the town where Esther grows up, complete with rationing and scrap collections. When she becomes a star we read about the studio system, her relations with Gary Cooper (weary and paternal) and Clark Gable (dutifully sexy) and her job interview with the fearsome Harry Cohn (not all that bad).

All these things are pertinent and gracefully written, yet the effect is of an author skillfully sifting his research, of reconstruction more than construction. Updike conscientiously lists the books he has used, and the library work eventually swamps the fictional work. This is also true of Clark’s life in the Temple, its unpredictable zealot leader and the fearful last days. Updike has accomplished a lot with his newspapers, but it is a performance, a self-assigned set-piece, as if he had asked himself: What can I do with Waco?

This is not opportunistic; it is a worthy tour of America’s times, just as Updike’s art reviews in the New York Review of Books are worthy tours of painting.


Furthermore, if it is not a success as fiction, it is something more than a tour for touring’s sake. Updike’s panoramics have a thematic purpose. From the air, a geologist may observe configurations that suggest the strata hidden beneath. Updike has used a helicopter to chart the metaphysical passions that much of 20th century American life and culture has so enticingly concealed. (There went the Rev. Wilmot, plucked away from Calvin by Hollywood, as well as by Darwin and Nietszche.) Approaching the millennium, these passions now show signs of erupting. (Here comes Clark, plucked away from his Hollywood heritage by a rough apocalyptic beast.) Helicopters, though, are not the best place for reading.