My Father’s Tears
And Other Stories
Alfred A. Knopf: 292 pp., $25.95
And Other Poems
Alfred A. Knopf: 98 pp., $25
Of course he was going to write until the end.
Several million words, 60-plus books. No American of the last century -- or ever -- has committed himself or herself quite as John Updike did to turning experience into prose.
Even nonreaders know the contours of his universe: a small-town Pennsylvania childhood, early marriage, fatherhood, the teary aftermath of divorce, mortality’s black flicker.
In these broad outlines, one can trace the shape of a life, or at least its artistic after-image, the heavier strokes beveled to an alluring fury. Indeed, for all the (rightful) praise Updike has received for his exquisite sentences, it is this belaboring within his fiction, and not its lyricism, that lends the work such spooky luminosity.
His torrent was more than a cup running over. It was as if Updike believed that all the beauty and strangeness of a life could be captured, and that to do so might mean he would live forever -- the immortality of which artists dream.
The impossibility of this conceit gives “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories” and “Endpoint and Other Poems,” which arrive less than six months after his death from lung cancer, a leaden, ceremonial weight. Even writing about death cannot stave it off.
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.
This is from “Requiem,” a minor masterpiece in “Endpoint,” a sad, enormously confessional book. This is especially true of the long title poem, which functions as a memoir in verse. Anyone who has read Updike’s astonishing “Self-Consciousness” will recognize its points of reference: the overbearing, artistically thwarted mother, the early publication, the thrill of seeing his work in type, his mulish attempt to make a living off it.
But there are flashes of something new -- a bald, almost apologetic tone:
And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!
I drank up women’s tears and spat them out
as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital.
Updike’s work has always been autobiographical, but it spoke through an ornate embroidery that was ennobling, however nearly pornographic or repetitive the writing might become.
In “Endpoint,” that lace has been yanked away and what remains is a true leave-taking that vacillates between horror, valediction and confession. “No piece was easy,” the prolific author assures us, “but each fell finished, / in its shroud print, into a book-shaped hole.”
Was it really that simple, plugging a yawning void? Such mundane capstones bump up against far richer images as the author cycles back to his childhood. “Wait up!” he recalls wailing to his parents, strolling ahead of him, “those Sunday walks a faint pretaste of death.”
One thinks of Blake’s “Nurse’s Song,” and when Updike leaves off the cataloging and list-making, “Endpoint” approaches the music of that brilliant poem. Several couplets sing. “A life poured into words -- apparent waste / intended to preserve the thing consumed.”
The last lines of the poem, written when Updike was being carried into hospice in Boston, are harrowing. The finale recalls the language of Puritans:
We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely -- magnificent, that ‘surely’ --
It’s an extraordinary send-off. But there is more to the book, and it has the feel of so much of Updike’s verse: It exists because it can. He riffs on Monica Lewinsky and Payne Stewart, laments the tedium of Florida and Arizona and the proliferation of senior moments. Even a genius loses energy.
“My Father’s Tears” has a similar entropic downdraft; it’s an uneven and grimly literal collection of fiction that reprises -- and repraises -- the author’s childhood, chronicles the indignities of old age, describes in nearly guidebook fashion far-off travels and lingers over detritus found in a home that sounds very much like the one Updike occupied until his death.
“Personal Archaeology” describes the ceramics and junk littering a New England backyard, intercut with memories of naughty parties during the 1960s. “Ceramic, unlike metal or wood, is impervious to time and moisture,” the narrator instructs. “But the earth, freezing and thawing in its annual cycle, can at last push up to the surface what the culprit thought had been safely buried and forever hidden.”
An artist always hides in plain view, some less obviously than others, and “My Father’s Tears” feels like a coming clean. It revolves -- guiltily, it must be said -- around occasions in which a narrator shows a lack of courage, a failure of understanding, a cruelness in refusing to let go of women.
The whiff of confession, however, does not generate the heat of fiction’s more mysterious properties. And there are other reasons this is a demoralizing book. White characters are described in full description; the rest are dark threatening smudges on the sideline.
In “Morocco,” an American family on holiday is frightened by a “dark” man who approaches, “breath rich in Muslim essences -- native spices, tooth decay, pious fasting with its parched membranes.” In “A Spanish Prelude to the Second Marriage,” a man and his mother travel the Iberian peninsula looking for cathedrals and dodging Gypsies. In “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe” a middle-aged couple are robbed, also in Spain. The last thing the narrator sees before being thrown to the pavement is “the porous new-shaven cheek of a dark-haired young man.”
As the story’s title hints, these are signs of a changing world, in which Americans are strangely fragile, the balance of power between sexes has shifted, and the quaint, circumambient embrace of Updike’s small-town Pennsylvania background seems that much more magical, mystical, safe. It is extraordinary to get this double-barreled farewell from so talented a writer. But perhaps he was right: The world had moved on.
Freeman is acting editor of Granta magazine.