The Maples Stories

John Updike’s sequence of stories featuring a couple named Richard and Joan Maple, anthologized in 1979 as Too Far to Go, has now been reprinted by Everyman’s Library under the title The Maples Stories, along with a final installment featuring the divorced Maples in old age, called “Grandparenting.” These 18 tales, written over the space of nearly 50 years, are of particular interest to anyone who cares about Updike’s fiction. For one thing, they are obviously autobiographical, with the Maples and their four children so closely based on the author, his first wife, Mary Pennington, and their four children (girl, boy, boy, girl) that most readers probably find themselves wondering whether the stories really count as fiction at all. They are about Updike’s marriage, there can be no doubt of that; but they are also about marriage in general, with the pleasing universality afforded by all really good fiction. They illumine, as Updike wrote in his foreword, “a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared. That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.”

A second important point about these pieces is that read in sequence, they give a beautifully condensed view of Updike’s style as it developed, changed, and shifted over the course of his long career. “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” which marked the first appearance of Richard and Joan Maple, appeared in The New Yorker in 1956, when the author was a mere 24 years of age. It is full of portents of what would become his mature style — he is already, for instance, finding the oddest things “poignant” — but it is still the half-baked work of a young man trying to find his own voice and that of his characters. Four years later, with “Wife-Wooing,” he experiments with a Joycean floridity that does not quite suit him and that he would eschew in later fiction; but we begin, also, to observe the crystalline descriptive gifts that would mark his best work. Here, for instance, he describes the family eating dinner around the fire: “The girl and I share one half-pint of potatoes; you and the boy share another; and in the center, sharing nothing, making simple reflections within himself like a jewel, the baby, mounted in an Easybaby, sucks at his bottle with frowning mastery, his selfish, contemplative eyes stealing glitter from the center of the flames.”

By the time Updike gets to “Giving Blood” in 1963, he has grown into his adult assurance, and the Maples finally take on the full flesh-tones of life. The author once noted that Richard and Joan “talk, more easily than any other characters the author has acted as agent for,” and this is absolutely true. Dialogue was never Updike’s strongest suit — in much of his fiction the characters’ speech struggles with an awkward artificiality — but the Maples speak out loud and clear, and very much in their own voices, or perhaps in the Updikes’. “Your Lover Just Called” (1967), most of which is written in dialogue, is a story of classic perfection, worthy of Maupassant or Chekhov, and to my mind the gem of the collection.

Oddly for so male a writer, Updike was most fascinated by the domestic world, particularly the arena of sexual and marital ties. He seldom ventured into the realm of work, perhaps because he himself knew so little about it; having achieved literary success at an early age, he never had to put in time at an office. Richard Maple has some unspecified job, referred to briefly and vaguely in the Joycean “Wife-Wooing” (“Stone is his province. The winning of coin. The maneuvering of abstractions. Making heartless things run. O the inanimate, adamant joys of job!”), but you never quite believe it; he seems to spend all his time at home, pestering his wife and making assignations with his various lovers.

As for bad behavior, Updike does not go easy on his fictional alter ego. Joan accuses him of being cruel and greedy, which is undeniably true; he is also spoiled — “often it was his wife who poured the drinks, while he sprawled on the sofa in the attitude of a favored and wholly delightful guest” — and distinctly buffoonish, playing out an “act.” He had originated it “among parents and grandparents, siblings and pets, and…developed it for a public of schoolmates and teachers, and…carried it to new refinements before an initially rapt audience of his own children.” Even alone he cannot stop performing.

Yet he possesses an essential tolerance and goodwill that are clearly derived from Updike’s own generally benign view of creation. “Anger had never been easy for ; even as a child he had seen there was nobody to be angry at, only tired people anxious to please, good hearts asleep and awake, wrapped in the limits of a universe that itself, from the beauty of its details and its contagious air of freedom, seemed to have been well-intentioned.”

Richard and Joan, too, are well intentioned; they like each other, they laugh together, they love their children. If the Maples stories fail in any way, it is because the author has not quite made us understand why they never manage to fix their marriage, or at least to go on with it until the children have left home. Why don’t they? Maybe it’s simply because they are the self-indulgent products of a self-indulgent generation, as some later writers have commented. Maybe it’s because they married too early and never had a chance for sexual experimentation while they were single. Maybe, again, it is because there is a key irritant missing from the Maples’ union which must have been very much present in the Updikes’: that is, the wounds inflicted by Updike’s too-thinly-disguised literary portraits of himself and his wife. Reading about herself in the guise of Joan Maple must have been hard for Mary Updike to bear, and it can only have hastened the demise of the marriage. Joan Maple didn’t have this grievance; something comparable might have made the breakup recorded in these stories more credible.

But as Updike observed, all things do end under heaven. “In life,” Richard Maple observes during the process of legally dissolving his 20-year marriage, “there are four forces: love, habit, time, and boredom. Love and habit at short range are immensely powerful, but time, lacking a minus charge, accumulates inexorably, and with its brother boredom levels all.” This seems to be what happens to the Maples, but affection does remain, as we see in “Grandparenting” (1994). Each happily remarried, Richard and Joan have convened at a Connecticut hospital to attend the birth of their first grandchild. Richard notices that grandmothers continue to be useful family members in a way that grandfathers do not: “He was the last of this particular extended family to arrive, and the least”; during the birth itself, while the rest of the clan is cheering on the laboring mother, he and Joan’s new husband, Andy, are relegated to a waiting room, where they watch football. He wryly observes Andy and Joan together: “Andy listened to her as one does to second wives, in confidence that the search is over”; he feels a similarly placid confidence in his own second spouse. At the end of the story, the baby born and the extended family dispersing into the frigid winter evening, the new grandfather bids adieu to his ex-wife, once his beloved partner and hated antagonist. All these emotions have receded, now, into the remotest past. “Richard thought of kissing her goodnight,” the author tells us, “but their faces were probably still icy, and his neck didn’t turn as easily as it used to.”