Thirty pages into Nicholson Baker’s U and I, a pungent, hilarious account of his obsession with John Updike, Baker drops the bomb: He’s read “most or all” of just eight Updike books, leaving 22 of which he’s read anywhere from five pages to “more than half.” It’s a risky admission, and Baker is ready with a prolepsis: “This man, you say, is parading his ignorance!… But this very spottiness of coverage is…one of the most important features of the thinking we do about living writers.” Had he read all of Updike, the better to inform his essay, “ multiplicity of examples would compete to illustrate a single point, in place of the one example that had made the point seem worth making in the first place.”
The posthumous collection My Father’s Tears reminds us of one wonderful thing about Updike: Practically any example illustrates the point that he rarely missed his mark. Seventeen of these 18 stories are late Updike, written during the past decade, but, with a handful of exceptions, they show no signs of a flagging talent. “he older I get,” Baker wrote, back in 1991, “the more drawn I expect to be by his later books.” Yet the best of these stories make the reader see and feel old age, regardless of his own age. It isn’t often pleasant, but it’s an illuminating experience nonetheless, one very rarely afforded by contemporary fiction.
“The Walk with Elizanne” introduces the theme of senescence in the setting where Americans are most likely to struggle with it: a high school class reunion. In this case, it’s a golden 50th. The story begins with David Kern, who also makes an appearance in “The Road Home” (published in The New Yorker in 2005 under the title “The Roads of Home”), visiting “the sick class member, Mamie Kauffman, in the hospital room where she has lain for six weeks, her bones too riddled with cancer for her to walk.”
Mamie Kauffman isn’t the focus of the story. That honor goes to the titular Elizanne, David Kern having been her first kiss — he comes to remember this as an almost mystical encounter. But it is in David’s meeting with Mamie that Updike shows the reach of his empathy and imagination:
Mamie tried to tell them about her suffering. “At times I’ve felt a little impatient with the Lord, but then I’m ashamed of myself. He doesn’t give you more than He gives you strength to bear.”
In theistic Pennsylvania, David realized, people developed philosophies. Where he lived now, an unresisted atheism left people to suffer with the mute, recessive stoicism of animals. The more intelligent they were, the less they had to say in extremis.
This brief passage tells us nothing about Updike’s struggle with imminent death, but it reminds us that he found nothing to sneer at in the average person’s emotional defenses. It seems that he admired, even envied them. This ability to describe the unglamorous without condescension or pity is part of what makes Updike so readable, and it’s worth emphasizing that he retained this ability at an age when many surrender to bitterness and cynicism. There is a powerful undercurrent of gratitude running through these stories, as though observing and recording the most humble lives had been a great privilege.
This is not to say the stories are cheerful. Physical and moral frailty are inescapable themes. In “Free,” a man finds himself liberated by his wife’s death to resume an old affair, but time has changed him and his lover: “Had she become one of those spoiled, much-married women who say whatever rude sharp thing comes to them, take it or leave it, as if sassy were cute?” His thoughts return to “a kind of glazed calm” that overcame him “when would take a sudden downward turn, or during those endless last nights when there was nothing for him to do but stay awake, hold her hand, and feed her morphine and ice chips.” Eventually he retreats to “the repose he found in imagining her still with him.” Another man, in “Personal Archaeology,” visits a “corpulent golfing buddy” lying moribund, post–cardiac arrest, in a hospital:
His chest moved up and down with a mechanical regularity recorded by hopping green lines on a monitor on the wall: a TV show, Al’s Last Hours. It was engrossing, though the plot was thin, those lines hopping on and on in a luminous sherbet green.
A strikingly similar observation (it’s funny, but one hesitates to call it a gag) appears in Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup. It’s a small coincidence, but suggestive of how often Updike put these near-universal experiences into words that seem not so much apt as inevitable. The tiniest things receive Updike’s careful attention. When “nts make mounds like coffee grounds between the bricks,” there is not only the vivid simile but also the assonance, the rhyme, the propulsive rhythm. Toby, the child protagonist of “Kinderszenen,” a series of nostalgic, exquisitely rendered tableaux, learns how certain colors go together while “crayoning at elementary school a picture of the house where he lives” and that “iscovering such harmonies excites him, more than it does other children.” Here, we may assume, is the germ of Updike’s sensibility.
There is only one serious miss in this collection. “Varieties of Religious Experience,” first published in the Atlantic in 2002, is a look at September 11, 2001, from three different perspectives, including, of course, a terrorist’s. But its teleplay dialogue and pat lessons feel dutiful and halfhearted. It’s unfortunate that Updike went on, four years later, to make a whole novel — the appalling Terrorist – out of this sort of thing, but in another sense it’s a reassurance that Updike’s real strength lay in subtler, less world-historical affairs. A trip to the dermatologist (“Blue Light”) leads a man to regard his own grandchildren as “immature cells, centers of potential pain,” and this remarkable, slightly sickening metaphor has far more power to describe the human tragedy than Updike’s ripped-from-the-headlines fluff.
One of the finest stories in this book, “The Full Glass,” tells of a man “pproaching eighty” who years ago left an insurance for a job refinishing floors: “Balancing in a crouch on the last dry boards like a Mohican steelwalker has taught me the value of the superficial, of that wet second coat glistening from baseboard to baseboard.” He has “no use for introspection,” he says, and asks little of life but a full glass of water before bed each night. But like Updike himself, he turns the superficial, the unassuming, into poetry, and introspection comes to him as naturally as swallowing.
So does gratitude. It’s hard to suppress a knot in one’s throat reading the lines that conclude this story — and this book: “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.”