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Busy Minister

A Month of Sundays

by John Updike
Knopf, 228 pp., $6.95

In A Month of Sundays a suburban clergyman, disenchanted with his marriage, his vocation, and modern life generally, allows his pastoral care to modulate into taking care of quite a few of his female parishioners. He begins with his organist and goes on to various others, until impotence and disclosure baffle his efforts to make it with the beautiful wife of the chairman of his Board of Deacons. To avoid scandal, his Bishop ships him off to a motel-like rest-and-recreation center for lapsed pastors in Death Valley, from which, during a pleasant enough regimen of golf, poker, cocktails, and daily writing-therapy, he gives us his curious history in the form of a retrospective journal.

I suppose that Updike was drawn to the idea of a clerical hero for a number of reasons. Ministers aren’t bad surrogates for novelists—they too, at least by repute, are literate, thoughtful, sensitive to human pain, good with words, devoted to more than immediate and transient values, accustomed to the presence of attentive audiences. And Updike’s Thomas Marshfield, though stronger in some of these qualities than in others, can indeed sum up his experience as a passable outline for a novel:

A man pledged to goodness and fidelity scorns his wife, betrays one mistress, is ompotent [sic] with another, exploits the trust and unhappiness of some who come to him for guidance, regards his father and his sons as menacing foreign objects, and through it all evinces no distinct guilt but rather a sort of scrabbling restiveness, a sense of events as a field of rubble in which he is empowered to search for some mysterious treasure.

As summary this does well enough for a book that’s in effect a pun on the word “fidelity,” but there are problems, here and elsewhere, in Marshfield’s way of turning the outline into images of life.

For one thing, this account, with its insinuation of a “romance” quest-motif toward the end, seems rather self-protective, right down to the little typo which immediately generates a footnote making nervous comedy out of the “impotent-omnipotent” confusion and its implications for a reader of Meister Eckhart and Aquinas. And the character’s defensiveness, his offer of charm and whimsicality to ward off the simple disapproval his behavior might otherwise seem to call for, reflects a difficulty for which the novelist must be held responsible.

The writing in the book often is almost aggressively overwrought, even for Updike, never one to pretend that his prose hasn’t been written:

I crept from window to window, meeting tactile differentiations among the variety of shrubs the local nursery (which piously kept its Puerto Rican peony-pickers in a state of purposeful peonage) had donated to our holy cause of parsonage improvement.

I listened for the cries it was her wont wantonly to emit in coitus.

Cretinous and cunning as an armadillo, I lay there bathed in mulch chips until I deemed the stillness safe for a dancing retreat—my legs scribbling like chalk on a blackboard—across Bork’s moon-hard lawn into the creaky, fusty forgiveness of my fanlighted foyer.

…the organist behind me pertly sliced a premature end to the eloquent anguish of my prayerful pause.

These passages (and others equally bad) come early in the book, and no doubt they’re supposed to suggest that Marshfield begins his story with a mixture of clerical pomposity and nervous coyness that produces such Euphuistic acrobatics. As he settles into his task, his writing does improve some—“my defiantly tricksome style of earlier has fallen from me,” he remarks toward the end. And Updike plants some signposts to this along the way; one of his images, “the hands of the motel clock have already moved past the crowing erectitude of noon” (page 16), confesses its inept plagiarism of Shakespeare—“the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” (page 64)—before finally lapsing into the language of mere men: “it is a few minutes to noon” (page 204).

But in first-person narrative it’s harder to distinguish the teller from the tale, and from the author, than literature textbooks like to let on. When Marshfield, having observed that his face “no more fits my inner light than the shade of a bridge lamp fits its bulb,” goes on to ascribe to it “a latently incandescent willingness to resist what is current,” one feels pretty sure that Updike is somewhere close by, enjoying himself immensely. Wit (good or bad) is wit, and for all the author’s efforts to attach it to the dramatic situation of his character, it tends to break loose and sound like John Updike.

The same trouble arises in Marshfield’s habit of pointing out his own typing errors and adding footnotes about what God or Freud might make of them. The trick isn’t funny or instructive enough to survive more than a few repetitions or to remain an expression of Marshfield’s, rather than Updike’s, gift for self-displaying foolery. I was perversely delighted, in fact, to see the device finally backfire on page 142 of my copy, where a complaint about not having been asked to preach a “funeral sermon” is footnoted by: “How’s that for womb / tomb, life-in-death, etc.? Or maybe I want to say that the corpse, for spurning my steering, is a lemon.” It took a puzzled moment to figure out that the compositors, as is their humorless wont, had restored “sermon” where Updike-Marshfield typed something else, reminding us that the last joke is usually God’s (or at least next to last—the incorrect correction was evidently correctly uncorrected during the press run, since other copies of the first edition give “semon”).

What exactly is the matter with Tom Marshfield? Married to the daughter of an old-fashioned theology professor named Chillingworth and entrusted to the rehabilitative care of the large and most un-nubile Ms. Prynne, whom he worshipfully beds before leaving the desert, he evidently is meant to be a weird updating of Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale; but plain, dull, Puritan guilt isn’t part of his penitential repertory, which runs more to luxurious memories of the private parts of his various partners, sermons on adultery as an avenue to grace (“Verily, the sacrament of marriage, as instituted in its adamant impossibility by our Saviour, exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery”), and finding support for his condition in Tillich, Barth, Kierkegaard, Robbe-Grillet, Melville, and (perhaps to get closer to the reading habits of the average parson) John Dickson Carr. He suggests, at least, that literary culture isn’t the best preparation for dealing with the repetitious and rather uninventive problems of most real people.

Other lives are a problem for Marshfield, who never quite gets over his discovery of the pleasure of telling a story: “This is fun! First you whittle the puppets, then you move them around.” After trying unsuccessfully to maneuver his decent, sensible wife and his pleasantly “radical” young assistant into having an affair that will get him morally off the hook, he reacts to their concern about his disgrace with the nastiness of a thwarted puppeteer:

I laughed and asked, “Why do you two remind me of a pair of hi-fi speakers?”

A waste of a question, since they couldn’t help it, they were a pair, my instinct had been right, a matched pair of prigs.

His women are sources of pleasure and comfort, reassurance of his manhood and freedom of soul within the circle of the collar (until he fails with the divine Frankie Harlow); but none of them gets to him as a possible fellow sufferer, being useful mainly as props in the continuing story of his deep but unrequited self-love. As his first mistress quite sensibly complains about his preaching, “‘You shouldn’t act out your personal psychodrama on their time. I mean, this isn’t meant to be your show, it’s theirs.”’

Lines like this do show Updike trying to remind himself that Marshfield deserves and needs deflating, but I think that the author mostly remains the creature of his fictional character. The “resistance to what is current” joke seems fatally attractive—the minister, involved in an order of traditional values and discipline, may confront the contemporary scene with considerable reserve or disgust, and even his own moral errors may have the flavor of heroic determination not to be caught up in the prevailing spiritlessness, in which even the church and its laws may be involved.

By this reading, Marshfield’s assistant, Ned Bork, a bearded, preppy peace-marcher who ministers to blacks and hippies and plays volleyball in a Jesus Christ Superstar tee shirt, shows precisely how not to do it, with his “perfectly custardly confection of Jungian-Reichian soma-mysticism swimming in a soupy caramel of Tillichic, Jasperian, Bultmannish blather, all served up in a dime-store dish of his gutless generation’s give-away Gemütlichkeit.” A few lines later Marshfield is made to confess that the whole parish loves Bork and that he himself likes him and hopes to be liked by him. But the vigor of the previous condemnation makes this hard to believe, as hard as to believe that the novelist hasn’t invested a good deal of his own outlook in Marshfield’s scorn.

That scorn seems to me narrow and ungenerous, as I judge that it also does to the part of Updike’s imagination that provides intermittent but sound objections to it in the novel. But it’s a question not of whether it’s a fair portrait of someone like Bork but whether Marshfield makes sense as a human self-portrait. For me he doesn’t. Just as I’m not sure that he’s supposed to be quite the monster he usually seems, I’m not sure how far to trust the conclusion, in which he appears to regain (with the help of Confucius, Pascal, and Bergson) a perilous faith that may be the only one possible for intelligent modern people:

But what could explicate and trivialize the deepest and simplest mystery, that I find myself here and not there, in the present rather than in the past or future? Il n’y a point de raison pourquoi; there is not a particle of reason why. So those of us who live by the irrational may moderate our shame. Who has set us here, in this vocation, at this late date, out of due time? To ask the question is to imply an answer: there is a qui, a Who, who has set; we have not accidentally fallen, we have been placed. As of course we already know in our marrow. God bless you. God keep you all. Amen.

After that, I guess that his final seduction of Ms. Prynne, won by reading passages just like this in his diary, represents not a new lapse but an acceptance of the mystery of his own being—a breakthrough into affirmation. In the Wilderness he may be achieving sainthood after all.

But I’m not convinced or much moved by such a meaning. It may be that God has put us here to serve Him by breaking what we believe are His laws; it may be too that Marshfield’s discovery of this, even at the expense of so much unhappiness in others and himself, is admirable. But A Month of Sundays doesn’t hang together well enough to prove that Updike’s interest in sex and his interest in religion have come together to say something that is impressive or interesting about love. Perhaps to my shame, I can’t see the novel as being a great deal more than disappointing self-indulgence by a very gifted writer.

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