I am sure John Updike, who died last year at the age of 76, never stopped writing until his last breadth. In his final volume of short stories, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, he does what every person his age does—reminiscences and ruminates about all those days “back then,” the process of growing old, and its miseries, if you will.
Updike always wrote ambivalently about the marriages and affairs of the people and places where he lived—rural Pennsylvania and suburban Massachusetts. Here they are viewed with a certain resignation and an increasing awareness of the imminence of death. If I can read this strange old guy’s mind right, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned. The world is being tended to, I can let go of it, it doesn’t need me.
Most of the stories in his last collection begin with the circumstances of his protagonist’s current life, a life when he is no longer young and frisky and then gradually slide into a recollection of some long-past event or person.
In Personal Archeology, the second in the collection, Craig Martin, finding himself idle on several acres of his Massachusetts land, begins to wonder about the traces left by its prior owners. Soon he begins to ponder his … increasing isolation—elderly golfing buddies dead or dying, his old business contacts fraying, no office to go to, his wife always off at her bridge or committees, his children as busy and preoccupied as he himself had been in middle age…
The realization that he is rarely invited anywhere now transports him back to the lively weekend parties that often led him astray: There were in fact two simultaneous parties, two layers of party—the overt layer, where they discussed, as adults, local politics, national issues (usually involving Richard Nixon), their automobiles and schools for their children, zoning boards and home renovations, and the covert layer, where men and women communicated with eye-glance and whisper, hand-squeeze and excessive hilarity.
Updike then returns Martin to his current marriage and the conversations that sometimes shook its foundations. I’d give anything not to have married you,” Grace sometimes said, when angry or soulful…”I shouldn’t tell you this, but at times I think I hate you.”… That’s what we’ve become, a show. All our married life, we’ve been a show.
But now viewing these exchanges from some distance Martin saluted the utterance as honest, gouged with effort from the compacted accumulation of daily pretence and accommodation. He reflects, As well as love one another we hate one another, and even ourselves.
And then there are the women, the wives and mistresses that often played such a central role in Updike’s fiction who are brought back to life once again in these stories. In The Full Glass a retired insurance salesman recalls a stolen day-off from work when he was with a woman who was not his wife. With his characteristic descriptive detail, Updike writes: Being with this woman made my blood feel carbonated. She wore a broad-shouldered tweedy fall outfit I had never seen before; its warm brown color, flecked with pimento red, set off her thick auburn hair, done up loosely in a twist behind--in my memory, when she turned her head to look through the windshield with me, whole loops of it had escaped the tortoiseshell hair clip.
This is soon followed by, …what I remember is being with her in the interior of the car, proudly conscious of the wealth of her hair and the width of her smile and the breadth of her hips…
These two stories reflect the themes that are reprised in many of the eighteen stories in this collection. There is a present, a once was, and then an understanding that comes with age.
Even though he was nearing eighty, Updike still had his touch. While admitting it’s all downhill at his age and seeing each day in the mirror his multiplying white hairs, his deepening wrinkles, and feel his shortness of breath after exertion, his stiffness after sitting too long in a chair or a car, there is nothing in these stories that strikes me as much different than those he wrote when he was on the upward slope, during a time that he thought the world owed me happiness.
For anyone close to Updike’s age these stories ring true. We brood about the past, experiences unexpectedly come to mind that unsettle us for days, we recall individuals who we have forgotten about for decades. Whatever happened to X? Is he still as clever as he was then? Is Y still as lovely as I found her then? Are S and A still married? Who would have guessed all this was coming?