AFTER THE GLITTERING and extravagant landscapes of the coup , we return in Updike's latest stories to more familiar domestic terrain -- gas stations in Nevada, church basements, motels, subways, bathrooms. We are back in the world of Everyman's everyday suffering and everyday grace, where the protagonists struggle with wives and mistresses, with teen-age children and divorce, with the decoration of Christmas trees and the burying of dogs, with committee meetings and analysts.
Heroically mundane, still desperately hopeful, their minds echoing with quotations from Blake and St. Augustine and esoteric scraps of information about extinct unglulates, Updikes's characters stumble bravely on through the dark world, remembering past innocence and past delight, for they are aging and guilty, victims of the "curve of sad time" which Updike invokes in his dedication. Fathers confront sons and recall their own fathers, and wonder shy and how they themselves have failed. Husbands confront ex-wives, tormented by love's refusal to die. And yet, as always with Updike, there are moments of exhilaration, phrases that redeem the prevailing sense of loss. Something gleams just beyond the edge of vision, and one of his many particular gifts is his ability to suggest it, to catch at it, to persusade us that after all this sorry pageant is not a pageant but a serious enterprise, and one worthy of serious endeavor, however inevitable the ultimate defeat.
Towards the end of a story somewhat coyly entitiled "Guilt-Gems," a man lets his 72-year-old mother drive herself home from New York to southern New Jerset although she is trembling with fear at the prospect of the long journey alone; when she rings, like a dutiful child, to report her safe arrival, she says she had to drive through a thunderstorm and "felt her age."
"How do your like it?" Ferris had asked, of feeling one's age. He was genuinely curious. He saw her now as his forward scout in the wilderness of time.
"With a lilt quite unexpected, dipping into some spring of girlish enthusiasm predating his birth, she answered, 'I hate it!' and did laugh."
Time is defeated at the moment of its triumph: mother and son have just returned from a visit to England, to see Tintern Abbey, and the Wordsworthian reference is entirely apposite. "O joy! that in our embers/Is something that doth live," wrote the poet, and Updike's stories repeat this ambiguous reassurance.
There are readers who find this union of the literary and the mundane highly artificial and self-couscious, too close to the bravura writing of a star performer in a creative-writing course. To me it seems natural, though one or two of the stories have a suspicious neatness -- "From the Journal of a Leper," for instance, tells the tale of a potter with a skin disease who seeks treatment, is finally cured of his complaint and loses both his woman and his inspiration, a tale too tidy to be very interesting. But this is one of the rare failures; in other stories geometric plots (and problems) are used with considerable wit. Others, yet again, contain volumes.
"Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer" is an account of an affair, and it creates in four pages character, scene, passion, dissension and resolution, reminding us that despite the inroads of age and the irritating habits of the beloved (she takes to jabbing him in the ribs at parties, never listens to him and often repeats herself), we are nevertheless subject to grander power: "For love must attach to what we cannot help -- the involuntary, the telltale, the fatal. Otherwise, the reasonableness and the mercy that would make our lives decent and orderly would overpower love, crush it, root it out, tumble it away like a striped tent pegged in sand."
There is a great deal in this collection that praises the decent and the orderly and the merciful -- who but Updike would make "Minutes of the Last Meeting," about the non-functioning Tarbox Committee for Equal Development and Betterment for Young and Old Alike, neither satiric nor sentimental, but affectionate and funny? Yet the stronger winds still blow where they list, and man, even when stumbling down to the subway, still lives in the eye of god.
It is hard for an English reader to comment on Updike's portrayal of American, for to us the deliberately familiar has a touch of the exotic. "Domestic Life in America," with it decor of boardwalks and trash cans, with its costumes of Ski-Doo boots and yellow slickers and its electric sign announcing the time and temperature as alternately 10:01 and 10 degrees, reports from a world at once deeply foreign and instantly recognizable. The motel with its pool, color TV and Magic Fingers in "How to Love American and Leave It at the Same Time" is both home and its opposite. The most ordinary words take on a ghostly glamor -- freeze-dried, Saniwrap, Diet Pepsi. The strange is familiar, and the familiar is strange, in this strange land of ordinary archetypes.
In The Coup updike created an imaginary world, a Coleridgean fantasy, a myth; here he has reverted to the Wordsworthian, revelaing hints of the supernatural in the events of everyday material life. He has braved the great themes, and noticed the unnoticeable, treating both with equal respect, and achievement that does him much honor.