Villages

( 21 )

Overview

In this wry novel of sentimental education and sexual pursuit, we follow Owen Mackenzie, a representative man of the author’s generation, from cradle to grave, and from bed to bed. His life and relationships are shaped by three villages, warm-lit communities that keep the darkness at bay from within and without. In Willow, Pennsylvania, the young Owen is transfixed by his first glimpses of female beauty. In Middle Falls, Connecticut, he marries, becomes a first-wave computer programmer, and discovers the very ...

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Villages

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Overview

In this wry novel of sentimental education and sexual pursuit, we follow Owen Mackenzie, a representative man of the author’s generation, from cradle to grave, and from bed to bed. His life and relationships are shaped by three villages, warm-lit communities that keep the darkness at bay from within and without. In Willow, Pennsylvania, the young Owen is transfixed by his first glimpses of female beauty. In Middle Falls, Connecticut, he marries, becomes a first-wave computer programmer, and discovers the very grownup pleasures of serial adultery. Finally, married for a second time, he retires with his memories, illusions, and fantasies to the somewhat geriatric community of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. John Updike turns Owen’s personal odyssey into a radiant, sensual fable of the seasons of a man’s life—and of the getting of wisdom in America.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Villages registers the progress of Owen Mackenzie, a computer programmer, from his boyhood in rural Pennsylvania to his final years in a New England geriatric community. Along the way, Mackenzie becomes entangled with numerous women, two of whom become his wives. John Updike's 21st novel displays both his carefully crafted prose and his fascination with human foibles.
Fay Weldon
This book gives great pleasure. Some writers get more boring with age, but John Updike just gets more perspicacious. The wealth of connections and imagery increases with the years; the practice of literary expression makes the prose yet more perfect.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In this 21st novel by one of the premier chroniclers of American life, a man recalls a lifetime spent in New England communities of women. Owen Mackenzie, now in his 70s and living in the small village of Haskell's Crossing, Conn., with his second wife, Julia, spends his days immersed in the daily routines of retirement while reminiscing about his childhood town of Willow, Pa., and the village where he spent his adulthood, Middle Falls, Conn. Though Owen studied at MIT and founded an early computer startup that made him moderately rich, his story is primarily defined by his romantic relationships. He marries his first wife, Phyllis, a classmate at MIT, for her cool beauty, but later decides that he needs a broader range of sexual experience. After a fraught first affair, he learns caution and is able to clandestinely indulge his love of women, until Julia, a minister's wife, comes along and convinces him to embark on a messy divorce and remarriage that indirectly results in Phyllis's accidental death. Owen's obsession with women's bodies and blithe ignorance of their inner lives can sometimes read like a tedious parody of Updike's earlier work, without a sense of humor to imply the author is in on the joke. Yet Updike still writes lovely sentences and creates a believable portrait of the American village, concealing dark secrets but providing a limited stability. 60,000 first printing; BOMC selection. (Oct. 24) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Updike returns with his 21st novel, breathing life into one man's journey from childhood to old age. Born in 1933, Owen Mackenzie is a young man sheltered in shady suburban New England villages. Following his education at MIT, where he meets his first wife, Phyllis, Owen begins a business in computer software and raises his family in the cozy enclosure of village life. But like Updike's signature character, Rabbit Angstrom (Rabbit, Run), Owen finds himself fleeing the constriction of his responsibilities. Women define Owen-they nurture, confound, and entice him-and he measures his worth as a man through his sexual awakenings and mounting extramarital affairs. The central question here is one of sex-how American communities here, sanction, and demonize sex over time and how our childhood preconceptions shape how we enter into our sexual roles as adults. Owen is the quintessential American man, fumbling forward in life yet equipped with the confident belief in a charmed existence. Updike again proves that he is a preeminent writer with a sharp eye for human nature. For all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.]-Misha Stone, Seattle P.L. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A graceful panoramic depiction of individuals and their communities, which simultaneously echoes Updike's 1968 novel, Couples, and may be as autobiographical a fiction as any he's written. The protagonist and viewpoint character is 70-year-old retiree Owen Mackenzie, who is stimulated by recurring, troubling dreams to recall experiences in the three "villages" where he's spent most of his life: Willow, Pennsylvania, where Owen, sheltered and indulged by cautious parents, develops "his charmed, only-child sense of life"; Middle Falls, Connecticut, where Owen and his first wife Phyllis produce their four children while he builds the innovative computer software business that will make him rich; and Haskells Crossing in eastern Massachusetts (read: Updike's longtime hometown of Ipswich), where he resides with second wife Julia, a former clergyman's spouse acquired during the last of Owen's numerous courses of adultery. The best parts of Villages are its early chapters, packed with delicately detailed observations of landscapes, interiors, and emotional states and felicitous sentences. By the time Owen undertakes his "practical scientific education" at M.I.T. and becomes involved with brainy, beautiful fellow student Phyllis Goodhue, Updike-ever the assiduous master of information pertaining to his characters' livelihoods-has provided a really rather impressive crash course in the history and programming of computers. But then Owen begins his serial dalliances with (mostly married) neighbors and acquaintances, and the novel segues into the vigorous clinical sexual specificity that Updike (a) does better than almost anybody else now writing and (b) overdoes to an extent that blemishes even hisbest fiction. The story recovers somewhat toward its end, as Owen's approaching death bestows a needed gravitas upon his compulsive egotism (about which, to be fair, Updike is unsparingly frank). Prototypical Updike: made new here and there by his ever-enviable novelistic skills, but marred by its more than passing resemblance to books that he's written too many times already. First printing of 60,000; Book-of-the-Month Club main selection
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345477316
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/27/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 640,940
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

Read an Excerpt

i. Dream On, Dear Owen

FOR A LONG TIME, his wife has awoken early, at five or five-thirty. By the rhythms of her chemistry, sometimes discordant with Owen’s, Julia wakes full of affection for him, her companion on the bed’s motionless voyage through that night of imperfect sleep. She hugs him and, above his protests that he is still sleeping, declares in a soft but relentless voice how much she loves him, how pleased she is by their marriage. “I’m just so happy with you.”

This after twenty-five years of life together. He is seventy, she sixty-five; her announcement, newsworthy to her, slightly insults him: how could it be otherwise? After all their trials, and the pain they gave others. They waded through; here they are, on the other side. She tugs at him; she twists his head in order to kiss his mouth. But his lips are puffy and numb with sleep, and in his anesthetized state, his nerves misaligned, it feels like an attempt to suffocate him; it rubs him, as people used to say, the wrong way. After a few minutes more of lovestricken fidgeting, while he stubbornly fails to respond, protecting the possibility of returning to his precious dreams, Julia relents and rises from the bed, and Owen, gratefully stretching himself into her vacated side, falls asleep for another hour or two.

One morning in this last, stolen hour he dreams that, in a house he does not know (it has a shabby, public air to it, as of a boarding-house or a hospital) faceless official presences guide him into a room where, on a bed like theirs, two single beds yoked together to make a king-size, a man—rather young, to judge from the smoothness of his blond body, with its plump buttocks—lies upon his wife’s body as if attempting resuscitation or (not at all the same thing) concealment. When, under silent direction from the accompanying, officiating presences, this stranger removes himself, Owen’s wife’s body, also naked, is revealed, supine: the white relaxed belly, the breasts flattened by gravity, her dear known sex in its gauzy beard of fur. She is dead, a suicide. She has found the way out of her pain. Owen thinks, If I had not interfered with her life, she would be still alive. He yearns to embrace her and breathe her back to life and suck back into himself the poison that his existence has worked upon hers.

Then, slowly, reluctantly, as one lifts one’s attention from a still-unsolved puzzle, he wakes up, and of course she is not dead; she is downstairs generating the smell of coffee and the rumble of an early news show: several bantering voices, male and female. Traffic and weather, Julia loves them both, they never cease to interest her, these chronic daily contingencies, though she quit commuting to Boston three years ago. He can hear the blue rubber flip-flops she insists on wearing, as if forever young and dressed for a beach, slap back and forth in the kitchen, refrigerator to countertop to breakfast table, and then to sink and trashmasher and dishwasher and on into the dining room, watering her plants. She loves her plants with the same emotional organ, perhaps, with which she loves the weather. The noise the flip-flops make, and the hazard they represent to her footing—she keeps slipping on the stairs—irritate him, but he does like the sight of her bare toes, spread slightly apart, as on hardworking Asian feet, their little joints whitened by the tension of keeping her flip-flops on. She is a small, dense-bodied brunette; unlike his first wife, she takes a good smooth tan.

Some days, half-roused, he finds the way back to sleep only by remembering one of the women, Alissa or Vanessa or Karen or Faye, who shared with him the town of Middle Falls, Connecticut, in the ’sixties and ’seventies. His hand gripping his drowsy prick, he relives having one of them beneath him, beside him, above him, brushing back her hair as she bent her face to his swollen core, its every nerve crying out for moist, knowing contact; but today is not one of those days. The strengthening white sun of spring glares brutally beneath the window shade. The real world, a tiger unwounded by his dream, awaits. It is time to get up and shoulder a day much like yesterday, a day that his animal optimism assumes to be the first of a sequence stretching endlessly into the future but that his cerebrum— hypertrophied in the species Homo sapiens—knows to be one more of a diminishing finite supply.

The village, so-called, of Haskells Crossing awakens around their private hill; the steady dull whir of traffic presses through the house walls of pine and plaster and the insulating woods beyond. The newspapers—the Boston Globe for him, the New York Times for her—have already been delivered. Birds long have been astir, the robins picking after worms, the crows boring into the lawn for chinch-bug grubs, the swallows snatching mosquitoes from midair, kind calling to kind in their jubilant pea-brained codes. He shouts down the stairs on his way to the bathroom, “Good morning, Julia!”

Her cry returns: “Owen! You’re up!”

“Sweetie, of course I’m up; my goodness, it’s after seven o’clock.”

The older they get, the more they talk like children. Her voice comes up the stairs, lightly arguing, semi-teasing: “You always sleep to eight, now that you have no train to catch.”

“Darling, what a liar you are! I never sleep past seven; I wish I could,” he goes on, though uncertain if she has moved away from the stairs and can’t hear him, “but that’s one of the things of old age, you’re up with the birds. Wait until it hits you.”

This is connubial nonsense. Talk about pea-brained codes: if the day were a computer, he thinks, this is how it boots up, reloading main memory. Julia in fact sleeps less than he (as did his first wife, Phyllis), but her being five years younger has always been for him a source of pride and sexual stimulus, like the sight of her toes at the front of her blue flip-flops. He also likes to see, below her bathrobe, her pink heels as they retreat, the vertical strokes of her Achilles tendons alternating, one quick firm step after the other, her feet splayed outward in the female way.

They hold this conversation while he waits, his bladder aching, outside the door to his bathroom, beside the stairs that descend to the kitchen. The image of his beloved Julia lying naked and dead in his dream, and the dream sensation of guilt that made her suicide in reality a murder committed by him, are still more vivid than the daily waking facts—the wallpaper with its sepia roses and muted metallic gloss, the new hall carpet with its fresh beige nap and thick, springy undercarpet, the day ahead with its hours to climb like rungs on an ancient, dangerous, splintering ladder.

While Owen shaves at the mirror mounted by the window, where his pouchy and sun-damaged old face, cruelly magnified, frontally accepts the pitiless light, he hears the mockingbird, mounted on its favorite perch at the tip of the tallest cedar, deliver a thrilling long scolding about something or other, some minor, chronic procedural matter. All these local levels of Nature—the birds, the insects, the flowers, the furtive fauna of chipmunks and woodchucks scuttling in and out of their holes as if a shotgun might blast them the next instant—have their own network of concerns and communications; the human world to them is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static, an intermittent interference rarely lethal and bearing no perceived relation to the organic bounty (the garbage, the gardens) that the human species brings to Nature’s table. They snub us, Owen thinks. We should be gods to them, but they lack our capacity for worship—for foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings with it, including the invention of an afterlife. Animals do not distinguish between us and the other beasts, or between us and the rocks and trees, each with its pungence and relevance to the struggle for existence. The earth offers haven to scorpions and woodchucks and quintillions of ants; the stars guide the Canada geese and arctic terns, the barn swallows and monarch butterflies in their immense annual migrations. We are mere dots beneath their wings, our cities foul and barren interruptions in the discourse of predator and prey. No, not interruptions, for many species accept our cities as habitats, not just the rats in the cellar and the bats in the attic but the hawks and pigeons on the skyscraper ledges and now the deer brazenly, helplessly stalking through suburban back yards, both pets and pests.

Owen stiffens his lower lip to take the razor’s ticklish sideways scrape. He tries to shave without seeing his face, which has never been exactly the face he wanted—too much nose, not enough chin. An inviting weakness, and yet a sharp-eyed wariness. Lately, creases drag at the corners of his mouth, and the eyelids are wrinkled like a desert reptile’s, so that their folds snag and weigh on his lashes in the morning. He hates that familiar feeling, of something in his eye, elusive but bothersome. Pollen. An eyelash. A burst capillary. Behind him, through the insulating woods, the sounds of engines, of backfiring, and of backing trucks’ warning beep, make felt the skimpy commercial section, a block or two, of Haskells Crossing; it is audible but not visible from his house in its leafy hilltop concealment. Though he can see the lights of the town clearly from his upstairs windows, he has never found a spot in town from which his house is visible. That pleases him; it is like his consciousness, invisible but central.

As a child he assumed that somehow the world was set in motion by his awaking. What happened before he awoke was like the time before he was born, a void he could not contemplate. It always surprises him how early, in villages as well as cities, morning activity begins, not just among fabled worm-catching birds but among men—the commuter hastening to catch the 6:11 train, the owner of the fruit store in town already back with his truck from the open market near the Callahan Tunnel, the jogging young mothers having done their miles before standing with their children at the bus stop, the village idlers already stationed on their bench by the war memorial, there next to the old brick fire station, across the main street from the bak- ery. The baker, an ill-shaved French Canadian with a chest sunken from too many cigarettes, has been up since four, tinging the cold air with the fragrance of baking croissants, cinnamon rolls, and blueberry muffins.

Owen can see it all in his mind’s eye as he scrapes at the last of the shaving soap, thrusting his insufficient chin forward to smooth the slack creases underneath. The fire station, if you want to know, is an ornate nineteenth-century structure almost too narrow for the modern fire truck recently purchased by the alderman in Cabot City, of which Haskells Crossing is an outlying ward; after each call, usually a false alarm, the truck backs into its berth, excitedly beeping, with only a few inches to spare on either side. The war memorial is an expandable list of names, movable white letters on a black, slotted surface behind glass, the dead from Haskells Crossing listed back to the French and Indian War. The largest group fell in the Civil War, the next largest in World War II. Below the Korean conflict (two names) and the Vietnam intervention (four) and the 1991 Iraqi action (a single name, an enlisted man accidentally crushed while helping unload a sixty-seven-ton M1A1 Abrams heavy-armor battle tank from the belly of a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane at Saudi Arabia’s Jabayl Airfield), a considerable space has been left for future casualties, in future conflicts. Sensible New England thrift: Owen likes it. He has found his final home here.

This is the third village of his life. The first was in Pennsylvania: the town of Willow, population four thousand, a “string town” grown, as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, from a wayside inn along the road, surrounded by fields growing corn and tobacco. The road, following a southeasterly river for forty-five miles, eventually reached Philadelphia but was here called Mifflin Avenue, after the quarrelsome first governor of the Keystone State. Three miles in another direction lay a medium-sized city, Alton, with its factories of blackened brick set right in amid the row houses, its railroad tracks cutting the downtown in two, its red-light district called Pussy Alley, its corner bars faced in Permastone, its movie palaces of pseudo-Islamic grandeur, and its noisy, porky restaurants—“rip-off joints,” his father called the restaurants. His father hated eating out; he hated being waited on, especially by men, who he felt were more expensive and bullying than waitresses; he hated rich restaurant food, which he sometimes vomited later, as a sign of contempt; he hated dessert, the sales tax, and the tip. Owen’s mother, overweight in all but his earliest memories of her, loved eating well, and would sit there cowed and fuming while her husband methodically ruined her pleasure. Or so it seemed to her small son, their only child, who read the marital drama from a limited point of view: though his hair was the dull, safe brown of his father’s, hair so fine it lifted from their heads when they removed their hats or sat near an electric fan, his sympathies lay with his auburn-haired mother. However, his father’s fear of running out of money sank into his stomach, and gnawed there. Perhaps by no accident did his life’s migration take him northeast, to a region of rocky, shallow soil and reluctant expenditure.

In Pennsylvania, the sandstone inns—seeds of villages some of which thrived and expanded while others became a decaying huddle—were spaced every three miles or so, the distance a man could walk in an hour or a team of horses could pull a farm wagon on a summer day without needing to be watered. Farm life still controlled time. Old people dozed in the middle of the day. Neighbors on the street peddled asparagus, beans, and tomatoes grown in their back yards to one another, and Mifflin Avenue, with its high crown that made rainwater rush in the gutters, resounded in the morning to the languid hoofbeats of horses drawing wagons to the farmers’ market a half-mile away, on the far side of the central thoroughfare, the Alton Pike, which had trolley tracks in its center. By the time Owen was born, in 1933, and was brought home for lack of another home to his grandfather’s house in Willow, Roosevelt was newly in office, and the village, named for a huge old tree hard by the inn, its roots watered by the creek that meandered toward Philadelphia, had been incorporated as a borough. It had grown secondary streets parallel to Mifflin Avenue—Second Street, and then Third and Fourth, climbing a hill where children sledded in winter, down the packed snow, bouncing through the barricaded intersections, until the ride ended with a spurt of sparks on a bed of cinders the borough crew had shovelled from a truck. The sparks, the packed snow, the Christmas trees in the front parlors all along the walk to school—these lasted for only a few days, spotted through a drab, damp winter, but made memories that lasted all year and tugged time forward in a child’s virtual eternity.

Warm weather lasted from March to October. A haze settled over Willow. Owen’s little bedroom, with its wainscoted walls and single bookshelf, overlooked a vacant lot where he often played with the other children of the neighborhood, for an hour after supper in summer, in a milky twilight, the long grass scratchy, going to seed. Fungo, kick-the-can, touch football: girls played them all, since the neighborhood held more girls than boys. Once, in the lot’s matted grasses, flattened and wet with dew—for it was fall and school had begun again—Owen came upon his glasses in the brown snap case that had vanished some days before. Found! He had looked everywhere in the house, and his mother had confided what a grief it would be for his poor father to have to pay for a replacement pair. It was a miracle, it seemed to the child as he bent down and took the case, damp with its nights and days of patiently waiting for him to find it, into his hand. Inside, yes, were the gold-rimmed disks that sharpened his sight, the little bean-shapes that left dents in his nose, the curved metal handles that hurt his ears. When he had been told, in second grade, that he must wear glasses for reading and the movies, he had cried. Some day, he consoled himself, he would outgrow them. Perhaps his finding them was less than a miracle, for he took this diagonal path through the weeds every day to meet Buddy Rourke, his friend from the class above his, so they could walk to school together, away from the pack of girls from Second Street. Buddy had no father, which made him strange and slightly frightening. He was moody, with hairs between his eyebrows. He had straight hair that bristled forward and a mouth that never smiled, because of braces, shiny metal bands with a silver square in the middle of each tooth. Owen wanted to run back to tell his mother that he had found his glasses and his father wouldn’t have to pay for new ones, but he didn't want to be late for Buddy, and hurried on, the recovered case making the pocket of his knickers damp, so the skin of his thigh tingled.

From this same side of the house, beyond the lot, early on another morning, Owen heard the sound of a shot. He had been sleeping. He seemed to awake in the moment before hearing, as if in a dream, the noise that had awoken him. He had seen enough gangster movies to know the sound of gunpowder under percussion, but in the movies it came in machine-gun waves, whereas this was a single, lonely sound.

His parents heard it, too, for they stirred in their bedroom, beyond his closed door, and the two voices, male and female, intertwined and then fell silent again. It was not quite dark outside; the trees in the side yard had silhouettes, their masses welling into that wash of gray light, with a faint tan tinge to the sky, before birds began to twitter. The street was silent, devoid of traffic, even a farm wagon. Later, he heard a siren, and later still the news, reported at breakfast by his father, who had been up the street news-gathering, that a young man in the Hoffmans’ household, two doors up from the house next to the vacant lot, had shot himself, with a service revolver, a Colt .38, that Wes Hoffman had kept from his time in the Great War. Danny Hoffman was not yet twenty, but a child under his supervision at a summer camp had dived into shallow water and broken his neck, and his responsibility had haunted him, though it had happened a summer ago. Danny had never been the same; he had stayed in the house listening to the radio serials and had stopped looking for a job.

That explained that. In a dozen years of Depression and World War II, from 1933 to 1945, it was the most dramatic event in Owen’s neighborhood. The woman across the street, Mrs. Yost, had a five-star flag in her front window, but all five soldier-sons came back in fine fettle. Skip Potteiger got Mary Lou Brumbach next door pregnant when she was only seventeen but then he married her so it was all right—by D-Day the baby was in a carriage that Mary Lou pushed back and forth on her way to the Acme, over the shallow troughs that carried roof water out to the gutter and the sidewalk squares that the roots of the horse-chestnut trees were tilting up, tripping you if you were on roller skates. On hot summer evenings the sounds of family quarrels would come across the street from the screened windows of the crowded row houses on the other side, the high side, up cement steps in the retaining walls that leaned outward precariously. But there were no divorces, as Owen remembered things. Voices were raised and shouts and door-slams cut through the neighborhood, but divorces happened elsewhere, in Hollywood and New York, and were tragic scandals, producing what nobody and certainly no child wanted: a broken home. The very phrase had a sinful, terrible sound and the ashen taste of disaster, like the bombed and smoking houses that filled the Fox Movietone newsreels at the Scheherazade, the local movie theatre. The world was full of destruction and evil, and only the United States, it seemed, could put it right. The country was at war, and in Owen’s fantasy the vacant lot in view of his bedroom was a bomb crater, overgrown with weeds.

The original willow tree still lived, coddled like an old dignitary with injections of pesticide and fertilizer thrust into its roots by making holes with a crowbar; it survived from the time when there had been a paper mill with a water wheel, and a pond stocked with trout, and a dirt racetrack, with harness races, before a grid of streets was laid out on the level low land north of the Pike. Owen’s house—not his house, really, and not even his parents’; it belonged to his mother’s parents, Isaac and Anna Rausch—was one of the older and bigger along Mifflin Avenue, bought by his grandfather when he felt rich from growing leaf tobacco in the First World War. He sold his farm and moved ten miles to this newly fashionable borough of Willow. Then, with the Depression, his savings melted away and his daughter and her husband and child moved in. One couple had a house, the other had some earning ability. Owen’s father was an accountant for one of the knitting mills in Alton. Owen’s auburn-haired, then slender mother sold draperies in an Alton department store until her little boy pricked her conscience by running after her down Mifflin Avenue, sobbing, as she was on her way to catch the trolley car; she quit the job to spend more time with him. His father, Floyd Mackenzie, came from Maryland. Owen had been named after a sickly grandfather who had died before he was born, but who, by the family’s legendary accounts, had had a twinkle, a sprightliness and inventiveness of mind, they thought of as Scots. He owned a hardware store, in Mt. Airy, this original Owen, and in his spare time had invented things, improvements on the implements he sold—a weed-extractor a person could operate without bending over, a hedge-trimmer geared to make the crank turn much easier—but no company had ever taken up their manufacture and made him rich. He died bankrupt and tubercular. Yet a glimmer of his hopes of outwitting the hard world descended to his grandson. The Mackenzies were not rich but were clever, canny. Owen’s father told him, “You take after my old man. You have his intellectual curiosity. He liked to sit and figure out how things worked. Me, I never wondered about anything except where my next dollar was coming from.” Daddy said this somewhat mournfully, as if the Mackenzie heritage was a mixed blessing—a hopeful imagination mixed with a certain frailty of constitution and essential ignorance of the way the world worked as it ground away day by day and picked your pockets.

His other grandfather, whom Owen lived with, had also a touch of the dreamer, selling his farm and investing in stocks that became worthless. He was a Pennsylvania German, but of an adaptable strain, speaking English perfectly, reading the afternoon newspaper faithfully, ornamenting his idleness with large thoughts and stately pronouncements. Owen recognized in the old man, with his yellowish mustache and white hair and gracefully gesturing hands, the wistfulness of the partial outsider, who had not quite found his way to the sources of power, the decisive secrets, in the only environment he knew.

“Pop should have been a politician, he has the gift of gab,” his son-in-law would say; but even Owen could see that his grandfather was too fastidious for politics, too passive-minded as he moved through his day, from the back yard, where he hoed and weeded a vegetable garden and could smoke a cigar, to his upstairs bedroom, where he took a nap, to the caneback sofa in the living room, where he sat waiting for Grammy to prepare the evening meal. His house was in Willow but, except for its lone child and Grammy, not quite of it. Grammy was a Yoder, the youngest of ten siblings, a member of a populous clan spread throughout the county. Willow was full of her relatives, cousins and nieces and nephews; sometimes she earned spare money by helping one of them with a big spring housecleaning, or helping prepare and serve a meal for a large gathering. These relatives had money: they owned small businesses or had good positions in the hosiery mills, wore nice clothes, and took vacations in the Poconos or along the Jersey Shore. When Owen heard them speak fondly of “Aunt Annie,” in that slow-spoken sentimental vein that country people so easily slipped into then, he at first had trouble realizing that they meant Grammy. We are different people, he realized, to different people.

After Owen had left it behind, his original village seemed an innocent, precious place, but it did not strike him as that while he lived there. It was the world, with a fathomless past and boundaries that were over the horizon. There were snakes in the grass and in piles of rocks warmed by the sun. Sex and religion had distinct, ancient odors; families perched like shaky nests on tangled twigs of previous history; and death could pounce in the middle of the night. In the period of young Danny Hoffman’s suicide, when Owen was still a child sleeping beneath a shelf holding two dozen Big Little Books, a one-eyed teddy bear called Bruno, and a rubber Mickey Mouse with a bare black chest and yellow shoes, a big horse-barn on the edge of Willow—the Blake farm, the property of absentee rich people from Delaware—burned down, and his father, who chased after disasters like a boy, reported how the horses, led to safety outside, in their terror bolted back inside, and how terrible the stench of their burning flesh and horsehair was. In the sky from Owen’s window that night, an orange glow silhouetted the roof and chimneys of the house next to the vacant lot, and the tallest spruces and hemlocks in people’s back yards beyond. The town fire sirens blasted again and again, enormous angry cries to which no answer came. As on the morning of the gunshot, Owen had rolled over and gone back to sleep, letting the world’s rivers of pain wash over him.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2004

    The Life of Owen Mackenzie as an American History

    John Updike has since the 1950s been the chronicler of the American mind. His twenty-one novels, poems, short stories, and essays have examined the American Dream and its vagaries, the inner and outer lives of the men and women living through the 20th century, the dichotomy between classes, ethics, sexual maturation, big business, politics as seen from both sides of the fence - name it and Updike has explored it. But John Updike also happens to be a gifted, eloquent wordsmith who can make small observations in a few words that become instantly branded on the brain as epiphanies. Reading Updike is a complete pleasure.For those questioning whether this first man of letters has anything new to say, then VILLAGES is a must read. By the literary means of separating chronological 'biography' with evenly interspersed chapters that pause to explore the sexuality of the main character ('Village Sex I - VI') Updike's writing is refreshing and affords a better scrutiny of the life of a man as influenced by his gradual sexual awakening, underlining how those basic needs alter his movement through the stages from childhood through adolescence through adulthood to old age. Owen Mackenzie was born during the Depression in Willow, Pennsylvania, (the first Village) a child of minimal means whose every discovery becomes a preparation for the Rake's Progress ahead. His introduction to the glories of the female body are bumpily naive and it is this 'frozen adolescence' the propels him through a marriage to a fellow student Phyllis) at MIT whom he marries and has four children, and upon graduation moves to Middle Falls, Connecticut where he slowly becomes a guru in the nascent computer industry. His various acts of adultery/affairs include a cornucopia of women of different types and values, and as his age and company and life in this village progress, he eventually must face his choices. He finally divorces Phyllis and marries another odd type (Julia, recently divorced from the town minister) only to end up in a retirement 'village' of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. A fairly simple story, and much in line with Updike's previous works.The joy of this book is in the asides addressing issues few authors face head-on. 'Capitalism...asks only one thing of us: that we consume. The stupider we are, the better consumers we are...You don't need to understand anything to watch television; they want you so stupid you keep staring at the commercials.' 'A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall.' 'Not for the rich the scattered wandering, the flight from ill-equipped nuclear family into America's wasteland of tawdry entertainments, of shopping-mall parking lots as large as lakes and seedy roadside bars advertising karaoke on Wednesday nights, of deserted downtowns and razed forests, of roving from job to job and mate to mate, amid such meagre electronic distractions as heist movies featuring car wrecks and fireballs and television comedies that reflect as in a fuzzy, fizzing mirror the awkward comedy of our desperate daily improvisations beyond the ordering principals of church, village, and family hierarchy...Only the rich - and not all of them, for some turn rebellious and others topple through self-neglect into lower castes - can afford the old structures that carry us from cradle to grave, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-respected.' 'There are fewer and fewer somewheres in America, and more and more anywheres, strung out along the highways.''It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness - to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperative into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.' The only summation of this book worthy of the writer is simply to encourage everyone to read it. An extraordinary journey is between these covers. Grady Harp, November 2004

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2014

    CHURHC

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2013

    Jaylen

    Name ~ Jaylen Butler <p> Age - 22 years old <p> Looks ~ Dark brown hair, gold eyes, either a black high low dress with black and white converse and a gold staff or a black tank top and black ripped skinnies with red air jordans and a gold staff <p> Personality - Caring, fun, loving, kind of nice, has an attitude sometimes, is an excellent cashier, and manages money excellent <p> Husband ~ Rheg Butler <p> Crush - Rheg Butler <p> Kids ~ Joseph and Thalia <p> Jobs - <br> Cashier: WalMart, Target, Macy's, B&N, JCP <br> Cook: HTB, Chili's, Taco Xtreme <p> Other: Just ask... I dont bite

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2013

    Bridget

    NAME Bridget O'Hara AGE 19 GENDER girl DESC tall slender wears jeans with a colorful T and a black leather jacket d black leather boots. Green eyes and long wavy brunet hair. PERS sweet fun understanding loving determined and stubborn. CRUSH none BF wants but not desperate

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

    Kovu and Kalla

    Kovu***
    Name: Kovu
    Age: 19
    Desc: jet black hair, green eyes, tall, muscular, charming smile he rarely uses.
    Pers: nice, friendly, trustworthy, loyal, caring, protective but not overly
    Sibling: Kalla

    >^.^< Kalla
    Name: Kalla
    Age: 16
    description: blonde waist ling hair that's usually straight, crystal blue eyes, dimples, tan, and 5'2
    Personality: sweet, caring, nice, trustworthy, friendly, funny and adorable in her own way
    Sibling: Kovu

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Kaylee and jaydeb

    Kaylee cisco....female...20 yrs old but acts younger... she is tall at 6"1' she is tan with long curly black hair to her waislt she dyes different colors.. she is slender but also curvy............. sweet careing. Adorable nice smart wise funny.........she has no crush. No boyfriend..no children........she is a doctor during the day and bartender at night.............her sibling is jayden.
    <p>
    Jayden cisco.......male......21 yrs old)......he is 6"3' he is muscular tan and slim..he has blonde hair that is cut short...........nice shy quiet. Sweet and always there for u funny wise......... no crush no gf no children............he is a police officer... his sibling is kaylee

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Adreanne to Jake & Jade

    She glares at Jake & Jade storms off, her smoky topaz eyes burning in fury.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Jade

    Gtg tb bbt
    ~Jade

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    ?

    ?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2013

    Si

    Hikaru, arent u demon.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Hikaru to Si

    Demon?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2013

    Sasia

    Name:Sasia. Age:20 going on 21. Gender:Female. Activity:very active will alert when im not gonna be here. Profession:Shes a bake. Past:she has a dark and shadiwy past she doesnt tell anyone about. Wheight:thats my buisness. Height:6'3". Personality:shes hard to get to know and secretive not shy but just not social she doesnt say anytging about herself but if u make an effort to know her u might be surprised

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2012

    Result two

    Whats ur name . Mines padme this is my husband aniken and our twins Luke and Leia . They are eight. Luke is older by a minute.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2012

    King Brian

    We need more people in this kingdom.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2012

    Merlin

    Thank u my king. If u would like i can upgrade ur armor to pure titanium.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 29, 2012

    Excellent

    No author compares to Updike. Gone way too soon.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2005

    A beautiful story

    John Updike is a great storyteller I shall start taking seriously. The story was a well constructed . I especially liked the Character development and like Owen, the main character the most. Like all stories set in a society in transition, innocence, ignorance, enlightenment, courage, evil, sex and goodness are all interwoven to make situations so exciting,. John Updike captured all of those in this novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2004

    A Transplant to New England

    All of the best works of John Updike are set in Pennsylvania, his heart's home. Inasmuch as 'Villages' takes place partly in New England and partly in Pennsylvania, it somewhat fits into this oevre. When Updike writes of life in New England, to which he transplanted himself as a young man, he usually doesn't 'get it'. By the time he settled in Ipswich, MA, he had attained such literary note that any scene he observed would have been altered drastically by his own presence in it, a kind of literary 'Heisenberg uncertainty principle'. Nonetheless, his wit and his genius for the English language save the day. This is an especially good book for readers who already have a quite a bit of Updike under their belts.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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