By Ron Hansen
Sunday, June 14, 2009
MY FATHER'S TEARS
And Other Stories
By John Updike
Knopf. 292pp. $25.95
In January, John Updike died of cancer at the age of 76. The 20th century's preeminent man of letters, Updike was equally at home with the novel, essays, criticism and poetry, but he will probably find his most lasting fame with his short stories, some of which were already classics in his lifetime. So it is fitting that we have as a fond valedictory this, John Updike's 12th collection of short fiction, the last one he completed before he died.
Eighteen stories are included in "My Father's Tears," arranged, as was his habit, in the order in which Updike wrote them. I have rarely encountered fiction that so genially recounts the frailties of old age. "Afraid of appearing senile," a professor revisiting his hometown fails to ask a motel clerk to repeat her hurried driving directions and gets horribly lost. A former floor refinisher considers the pleasure of having a full glass of water on the bathroom sink to "sluice down the anti-cholesterol pill, the anti-inflammatory, the sleeping, the calcium supplement . . . along with the Xalatan drops to stave off glaucoma and the Systane drops to ease dry eye." And a high school reunion prompts one character to note that "the list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony crone-hood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead."
In general the characters are flush New Englanders with children and grandchildren, who have the wealth for exotic travel and the luxury of time for reminiscence or, as Updike calls it, "personal archaeology." Hints of death and dying faintly tinge every story, but there is no pathos or urging to not go gently into that good night; there is just the realist's ironic shrug over the way things are and a healthy appreciation for the largely unrecognized heroism of facing life's decline, as when a character remembers that "for two years he had lain beside Irene feeling her disease growing like a child of theirs. He had stayed awake in the shadow of her silence, marvelling at the stark untouchable beauty of her stoicism. In the dark her pain had seemed an incandescence."
The story "My Father's Tears" begins with a narrator very much like Updike recalling how his father cried as his son left Pennsylvania for Harvard, having foreseen "that the boy I had been was dying if not already dead, and we would have less and less to do with each other. My life had come out of his, and now I was stealing away with it." Contrasted with that memory are those of his first wife's father, a serene Unitarian minister in St. Louis who vacationed in a Vermont farmhouse each summer and invited the newly married couple there. Whereas his own much-loved father "enacted the role of an underdog, a man whose every day, at school or elsewhere, proceeded through a series of scrapes and embarrassments," the father-in-law was aloof and magisterial, a confident man who moved among his houseguests "like a planet exempt from the law of gravitational attraction." "He was to be brought low, all dignity shed, before he died. Alzheimer's didn't so much invade his brain as deepen the benign fuzziness and preoccupation that had always been there." It was a heart attack that felled the narrator's father, in an era in which there were no options like open-heart surgery and angioplasty. Yet, facing the finality of his loss, the narrator finds himself unable to cry. "My father's tears had used up mine."
Updike at his finest can be seen in "Varieties of Religious Experience," which considers four wildly different characters and their reactions to the events of 9/11, "when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her linen gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silvery rippling noise." A lawyer watching on television loses his faith in God and is later "aggrieved by the grotesque and pitiable sight of a great modern nation attempting to heal itself through this tired old magic of flags and candles -- the human spirit stubbornly spilling its colorful vain gestures into the void." The story then shifts to Mohamed, one of the Muslim perpetrators, who thinks of America as an "unclean society disfigured by an appalling laxity of laws and an electronic delirium of supposed opportunities and pleasures." Jim Finch has an office high up in the World Trade Center and is on the phone with his wife when he realizes the enormity of his predicament. And a fourth character is Carolyn, onboard the flight that a scrum of passengers forced to plow into the earth of Pennsylvania rather than the White House. "Mercy, Carolyn managed to cry distinctly inside her pounding head. Dear, Lord, have mercy."
"Kinderszenen," which is German for "child scenes," records a little boy's careful observations of farm and family life in the 1930s, and "The Walk with Elizanne" elegiacally considers the 50th reunion of the graduating class of Olinger High School, Olinger being the fictional stand-in for the Shillington, Penn., of Updike's youth and of many of his finest stories. Even the protagonist's name, David Kern, is one that habitual readers of Updike's fiction will connect with, for these stories are acts of affectionate recapitulation, not wondrous exploration. Like his earlier novel "Villages," this book holds up to the sunlight and gently turns objects Updike has considered before, seeing glimmers and refractions that are slightly different from those he had formerly put down on paper. As such, "My Father's Tears" is 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. And its last line is all Updike: "If I can read this strange old guy's mind aright, he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned." --
Ron Hansen's most recent novel is "Exiles," about Gerard Manley Hopkins and "The Wreck of the Deutschland." He teaches at Santa Clara University.