The Downhill Slope

The Afterlife and Other Stories

by John Updike
Knopf, 316 pp., $24.00

A Private View

by Anita Brookner
Random House, 253 pp., $23.00

We are lucky, those of us who are aging in step with such writers as Updike and Brookner, as they chart in their totally different ways the downhill slope. Updike, in his stories especially, has always been acutely aware of mutability, moments inching away, moments of illumination that show gulfs of time before and after. Here we have an Updike afterlife of revisitings, uneasy remarryings, leave-takings, and stock-takings. But though he is concerned with ebbing powers and a contracting world, he of course writes of these with his usual fertile energy. If his last two novels have disappointed some people, when he gets his hands on the short story the master can do no wrong.

For his title story, in one of his rare trips (in the short stories) outside suburban America, Updike takes a couple’s visit to friends who have retired overseas to rural England. The portrayal of the East Anglian scene is as elegant as a Crome watercolor: pale plowed fields, windy skies, Norman churches, and half-timbered village houses. The Egglestons have settled down to parish charity work, riding in the local hunt, painting, birdwatching. They have a whole room of Wellington boots and rakes and shovels and riding crops. But behind the coziness of a charmingly posed new life there is a sense of menace, of things falling and crashing. In the dark their visitor, Carter, nearly falls to his death on the staircase; a gale blows up and throws ancient oaks across the roads. And, from the feeling of an obscure dislocation, a gap between himself and the real world “like the lag built into radio talk shows so that obscenities wouldn’t get on the air,” he knows that he has gone “beyond all that,” to some different area of tired calm where degrees of anger don’t matter.

In “Playing with Dynamite” there is the same juxtaposition of bright present and dark background. Fanshawe has a spry younger wife (as do most of the men in the afterlife) and a crowd of handsome grown children and stepchildren. But he has gone back, or ahead, to the childhood sense that anything might turn into anything else, or turn up somewhere else.

Perhaps an object could travel faster than the speed of light, and we each have an immortal soul. It didn’t, terribly, matter … Living now in death’s immediate neighborhood, he was developing a soldier’s jaunty indifference; if the bathtub in the corner of his eye as he shaved were to take on the form of a polar bear and start mauling him, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Even the end of the world, strange to say, wouldn’t be the end of the world.

He is not sure what, in the confused past, he has been responsible for, what he is innocent or guilty of. A neighbor lies dead next door for days; a bird’s nest gets wantonly thrown away. Long ago, his son broke his …

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