Toward the End of Time
John Updike’s latest novel, Toward the End of Time, describes the burdened crawl toward death of a Boston stockbroker with the evocative Yankee name of Ben Turnbull. Turnbull is “semi-retired”: he spends most of his time poking around his house and grounds on the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay. He is highly intelligent, cultivated, and thoughtful in an utterly self-absorbed way. It is 2020 AD; he is sixty-six years old and desperate.
Turnbull has made his way up from unprivileged rural origins in Berkshire County. Although the book does not suggest it, a reader might imagine him as an epigone descendent much removed of the Boston merchants whose self-confident portraits by Copley and Smibert help remind us of our beginnings. But Ben Turnbull is a crepuscular man. His youthful prime will have been the 1980s and he exhibits the worst characteristics of his era, the ones most commonly deplored. As a man of business, he despised his clients and colleagues. He was an adulterer and a libertine. He is weak, cruel, and sly.
History has taken its revenge on Turnbull and, less importantly to him, on the America he represents at its worst. There has been a devastating war with China which seems to have annihilated much of the continent. No doubt it came about through the self-serving, short-sighted strategies of people like him, bungling foreign policy in Washington. In any case it’s all over now, as Bob Dylan long ago sang for a different generation.
Washington itself has become the turf of “warring gangs of African-American teenagers, who have looted every office of its last stapler and photocopier refill cartridge,” so the national government is a shadow. On the Massachusetts North Shore, the police exist but to no particular purpose. Householders pay protection money to gangs of young thugs and live in dread that “the Croatian gangs from Worcester,” serious gunmen, will make their way to the shore. The dollar has lost its value and the suburbanites pay their way with a unit of currency named for former Governor William Weld—the humor of this nomenclature is reserved for the author and his readers, and seems not apparent to the inhabitants of the novel.
“Paris occupied?” Jean Cocteau is supposed to have cried, when those feldgreise oompah bands came marching down the Champs-Elysées. “How will I get my opium?” Ben Turnbull, another deeply private man, also takes a homely view of the situation actuelle. Most folks may be dead but Federal Express still operates, which is one of the first things Ben, our narrator, assures us about his fallen world. He gets his bond slips from the city via Fed Ex, as the Croatian gunsels in Worcester presumably get their cocaine.
Actually, remarkably little in everyday life has been changed for Ben Turnbull as a result of this somewhat underdescribed and insufficiently detailed catastrophe. Given the right amount of feckless politicking, bad judgment, and bad luck, one might envision a scenario in which things get nearly as …