The Washington Post
My Father's Tears and Other Storiesby John Updike
“Drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” That’s how John Updike describes one of his elderly protagonists in this, his final collection of short stories. He might have been writing about himself. In My Father’s Tears, the author revisits his signature characters, places, and/i>/i>… See more details below
“Drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” That’s how John Updike describes one of his elderly protagonists in this, his final collection of short stories. He might have been writing about himself. In My Father’s Tears, the author revisits his signature characters, places, and themes—Americans in suburbs, cities, and small towns grappling with faith and infidelity—in a gallery of portraits of his aging generation, men and women for whom making peace with the past is now paramount. The Seattle Times called My Father’s Tears “a haunting collection” that “echoes the melancholy of Chekhov, the romanticism of Wordsworth and the mournful spirit of Yeats.”
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Updike compresses the strata of a life in his delicately rendered, tremendously moving posthumous collection. In "Free," the memory of a life-affirming affair buckles against a man's loyalty to his deceased wife: he recognizes that becoming a "well-bred stick" offers more consolation in old age than the sluggish arousal of his sensuality. In "The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe," the retired protagonist, depressed by what he perceives as the universe's indifference to human affairs, is done in by the accumulated detritus of his life. Many characters are haunted by a sense of isolation, such as the protagonist of "Personal Archaeology," who roams his Massachusetts estate, searching for traces of previous ownership while sifting through his own petty contribution, or the emotionally stranded absentee landlord of an Alton, Pa., family farm in "The Road Home," who returns after 50 years and finds himself lost in his hometown. From "Kinderszenen," which depicts the anxious time of smalltown late 1930s, to "Varieties of Religious Experience," in which a grandfather watches the twin towers fall, time ushers in brutal changes. With masterly assurance, Updike transforms the familiar into the mysterious. (June)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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. "[T]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 [his wife] 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 "[a]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 "[d]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 "[a]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." --Stefan Beck
A writer living in Palo Alto, California, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications.
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The seacoast road went smoothly up and down, but compared with an American highway it was eerily empty. Other cars appeared menacing on it, approaching like bullets, straddling the center strip. Along the roadside, alone in all that sunswept space, little girls in multicolored Berber costume held out bouquets of flowers—violets? poppies?—which we were afraid to stop and accept. What were we afraid of? A trap. Bandits. Undertipping, or overtipping. Not knowing enough French, and no Arabic or Berber. “Don’t stop, Daddy, don’t!” was the cry; and it was true, when we did stop at markets, interested persons out of the local landscape would gather about our rented Renault, peering in and offering unintelligible invitations.
We were an American family living in England in 1969 and had come to Morocco naïvely thinking it would be, in April, as absolute an escape to the sun as a trip to the Caribbean from the Eastern United States would be at the same time of year.
But Restinga, where a British travel agency as innocent as we of climatic realities had sent us, was deserted and windy. The hotel, freshly built by decree of the progressive, tourism-minded king, was semicircular in shape. At night, doors in the curving corridors slammed, and a solitary guard in a burnoose kept watch over the vacant rooms and the strange family of pre-season Americans. By day, the waves were too choppy to swim in, and the Mediterranean was not so much wine-dark as oil-black. Walking along the beach, we picked up tar on our feet. When we lay down on the beach, wind blew sand into our ears. Off in the distance, apartment buildings of pink concrete were slowly being assembled, and there were signs that in a month vacationers from somewhere would fill the bleak plazas, the boarded-up arcades. But for now there was only the whipping wind, a useless sun, and—singly, idly, silently in the middle distance—Arabs. Or were they Berbers? Dark men, at any rate, in robes, who frightened our baby, Genevieve. Fantastic as it seems now, when she is so tall and lovely in her spangled disco dress, she was then overweight and eight. Caleb was ten, Mark twelve, and Judith a budding fourteen.
“Je le regrette beaucoup,” I told the manager of the Restinga hotel, a blue-sweatered young man who wandered about closing doors that had blown open, “mais il faut que nous partirons. Trop de vent, et pas de bain de la mer.”
“Trop de vent,” he agreed, laughing, as if reassured that we were not as crazy as we had seemed.
“Les enfants sont malheureux, aussi ma femme. Je regrette beaucoup de partir. L’hôtel, c’est beau, en été.” I should have used the subjunctive or the future tense, and stopped trying to explain.
The manager gave our departure his stoical blessing but explained, in cascades of financial French, why he could not refund the money we had prepaid in London. So I was left with a little cash, a Hertz credit card, four children, a wife, and plane tickets that bound us to ten more days in Morocco.
We took a bus to Tangier. We stood beside an empty road at noon, six stray Americans, chunky and vulnerable in our woolly English clothes with our suitcases full of continental sun togs bought at Lilywhite’s and of Penguins for vacation reading. The sun beat upon us, and the wind. The road dissolved at either end in a pink shimmer. “I can’t believe this,” my wife said. “I could cry.”
“Don’t panic the kids,” I said. “What else can we do?” I asked. “There are no taxis. We have no money.”
“There must be something,” she said. Somehow, my mem- ory of the moment has dressed her in a highly unflattering navy-blue beret.
“I’m scared,” Genevieve announced, clutching her knapsack and looking painfully hot and rosy in her heavy gray overcoat.
“Baby,” sneered her big sister, who attracted stares from native men everywhere and was feeling a certain power.
“The bus will come,” Daddy promised, looking over their heads to the vanishing point where the road merged in the pink confusion of the new buildings the king was very slowly erecting.
A thin dark man in a dirty caftan materialized and spoke to us in a lengthy nasal language. He held out his palms as if to have them read.
“Dad, the man is talking to you,” Mark, then prepubescent and now a graduate student in computer science, said, very embarrassed.
“I know he is,” I told him, helplessly.
“What’s he saying, Dad?” Genevieve asked.
“He’s asking if this is the bus stop,” I lied.
The man, continuing to speak, came closer, confiding a breath rich in Muslim essences—native spices, tooth decay, pious fasting with its parched membranes. His remarks grew more rapid and urgent, but a light was dying in his bloodshot eyes.
“Tell him to go away.” This suggestion came from Caleb, our silent, stoic, sensible child, now a college junior majoring in zoology.
“I think he will,” I hazarded, and the man did, shaking his skeletal head at our unresponsive idiocy. Our little family clustered closer in relief. Sand blew into our shoes, and the semicircular halls of the abandoned hotel, our only home in this foreign land, howled at our backs like some deep-voiced, clumsy musical instrument.
The bus! The bus to Tangier! We waved—how we waved!—and with an incredulous toot the bus stopped. It was the green of tired grass, and chickens in slatted coops were tied to the top, along with rolled-up rugs. Inside, there were Moroccans: dusty hunched patient unknown people, wearing knit little things on their heads and knit little things on their feet, their bodies mixed in with their bundles, the women wrapped in black, some with veils, all eyes glittering upward in alarmed amazement at this onrush of large, flushed, childish Americans.
The fare, a few dirhams, was taken noncommittally by a driver, who had a Nasseresque mustache and a jaw to match. There was room at the back of the bus. As we wrestled our ponderous suitcases down the aisle, the bus swayed, and I feared we might crush with our bulky innocence this frag- ile vehicle and its delicately balanced freight. Deeper into the bus, an indigenous smell, as of burned rope, intensified.
In Tangier, the swaying bus was exchanged for a single overloaded taxi, whose driver in his desire to unload us came into the Hertz office and tried to help the negotiations along. Allah be praised, his help was not needed: the yellow plastic Hertz card that I produced did it all. Had I been able to produce also the pale green of an American Express card, our suspenseful career down the coast, from Tangier to Rabat to Casablanca and then through the narrower streets of El Jadida and Essaouira and Tafraout, would have been greatly eased, for at each hotel it was necessary to beg the clerk to accept a personal check on a London bank, and none but the most expensive hotels would risk it; hence the odd intervals of luxury that punctuated our penurious flight from the Mediterranean winds.
The avenues of Rabat as we drove into the city were festooned in red. Any thought that we were being welcomed with red banners gave way when we saw hammers and sickles and posters of Lenin. A Soviet high-level delegation, which included Kosygin and Podgorny, was being received by the versatile king, we discovered at the Rabat Hilton, which was booked so solid with Communists that it could not shelter even the most needy children of free enterprise.
But a hotel less in demand by the Soviets took us in, and at dinner, starved, we were sat down in a ring on piled carpets, around what in memory seems an immense brass tray, while a laughing barefoot girl tiptoed at our backs, sprinkling rosewater into our hair. Mark, tickled, made his monkey face.
This sensation of being beautifully served amid undercurrents of amusement recurred in a meadow high above the sea, where, after miles of empty landscape and empty stomachs, a minuscule restaurant, scarcely more than a lean-to, advertised itself with a wooden arrow. We stopped the rented Renault and with trepidation walked across the grass, single-file, feeling again huge, as when we trod deeper into that fragrant bus. We halted when a man emerged from the shack bearing a table, and a boy emerged carrying chairs. With an air of amusement all around, this furniture was set on the grassy earth, in a spot we lightly indicated. From the shed were produced in time wine, rice, kebabs, and Cokes, which we consumed in sight of the Atlantic, of beige cliffs, and of vast pastures grazed by a single donkey—the only customers, for all we knew, that this beautiful restaurant by the sea had ever had.
Even on the rough back road to Tafraout, into the stony hills of the Low Atlas, with the gas gauge saying zero and not a house, not a sheep or goat, in sight, a little girl in a dip of the unpaved track held out a handful of flowers. The road here had become one with the rocks of a dry riverbed, so our Renault was moving slowly, so slowly she had time, when she saw we were truly not going to stop, to whip our fenders with the flowers and to throw them at the open car window. One or two fell inside, onto our laps. The rest fell onto the asphalt beside her feet. In the rearview mirror I saw the little girl stamp her foot in rage. Perhaps she cried. She was about the age of Genevieve, who expressed empathy and sadness as the girl diminished behind us and dropped from sight.
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While others may like John Updike's stories, I was very sad to have given it to my mother who is an avid reader and well over 80 years old. She was still trying to read it because it was a gift, but disliked the sense of humor in this one very much. I had "screened" the overall book carefully, but not read any of the actual stories. cmk
This is the last collection of stories of one of America's greatest modern literary figures. It is written in the signature Updike style, the comprehensive perceptivenes , the brilliant creative retranscription of the details of the everyday world. It has many of the same situations and themes familiar from his earlier work. But it focuses on 'death' and 'aging' in a more intense way than before. It too gives great emphasis to seeing life in perspective, the perspective of stages as in the story 'Personal Archaeology' or in the perspective of places and people returned to after years apart from them, as in stories like ' My Father's Tears' or 'The Full Glass'. It has a sense of life's most horrible and frightening ironies but also of course a deep sense of its pleasures. All in all Updike the master observer seems to be saying goodbye to us , by giving us once again a dazzling picture of how lives go on in unexpected ways and we small human beings are continually being upended by our own illusions, lusts and dreams. I think every reader of Updike will be but filled with gratitude at being given such a moving farewell gift by this consummate American master.
Great last effort by one of my favorite authors ever.
This posthumous short story collection suggests Updike reflecting upon his life and life in general. The stories are touching, relevant and, as always, very well written. The characters and the situation continue to resonate with the reader long after the story has been finished. Those readers who treasure the Updike writing style and incisive plotting should not miss this likely last and one of his best creations.
Admittedly, this is the first of Updike's books that I've ever read, but I was a bit disappointed seeing as how huge his reputation is. I see that he died earlier this year, and after finishing this book I felt that he had pretty much gone over the earlier years of his life in this book. I am 58 years old, and I could relate to some of the things he thought about and experienced. I'm not sure that younger readers would relate to (much less understand) some of his experiences that happened prior to the electronic age. Some of his stories were really melancholy, but that was ok. When you get older, you get that way! I'm not sure that I would read any of his earlier works after reading this one.