The Early Stories, 1953–1975
by John Updike
Knopf, 838 pp., $35.00
Embedded (oh, that word) in John Updike’s openhearted foreword to his collection The Early Stories, 1953– 1975 is his book’s missing dedication. “Perhaps I could have made a go of the literary business without my first wife’s faith, forbearance, sensitivity, and good sense, but I cannot imagine how.” Indeed, the figure of the first wife recurs throughout Updike’s narrative work, and throughout this book, especially in its closing stories where, in whatever incarnation Updike fashions her, she is both vivid and benign—a sister, a conscience, an aspect of self, a fellow witness, a pal. Thus one might conclude that this huge compilation of “early” stories, which Updike wrote over a twenty-two-year period for money as well as art (selling them to The New Yorker was his “principal means of support, for a family that by 1960 included four children under six”), is largely about the getting, having, and leaving of the first wife, the straight American man’s grab, and grab again, at happiness.
One would not be entirely wrong. Updike’s protagonists in the short fiction early in his career are largely solitudinous sons and husbands, somewhat isolated from other men. His metaphors, too, are marital and filial, sometimes both simultaneously. “The world is our bride,” he writes in “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” one of the best stories in the volume, “given to us to love, and the terror and joy of the marriage is that we bring to it a nature not our bride’s.” In “Museums and Women” he writes, “Often my mother …was the only other person in the room. Who she was was a mystery so deep it never formed into a question.” Though both emotionally and materially frugal, men in Updike’s fictional world are drawn to, dependent on, and passive before women. There is both uneasiness and comfort in this sexual land, without much profound mutual knowledge, though such knowledge is struggled toward by almost all the characters. The elegant and penetrating descriptions, however, composed from the chasm’s edge—both the wisdom and the wise unknowingness—are among the main reasons one reads Updike. “Her gesture as she tips the dregs of white wine into a potted geranium seems infinite, like one of Vermeer’s moments frozen in an eternal light from the left.” His eye and his prose never falter, even when the world fails to send its more socially complicated revelations directly his story’s way.
Updike’s primary subject here is the American village, from Greenwich Village to Tarbox. (“Tar,” Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, “an odorous viscous liquid, and box—well, guess.”) History, or the doings of the outside world and their intrusions upon his villagers, he has by and large reserved for his capacious novels. His immense achievement there, the now-canonized Rabbit tetralogy, is a national portrait registering four consecutive American decades, its third-person, present-tense narrative a kind of democratic flypaper (in the children’s alphabet book Updike …