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 wrote with his son, the letter V is not for the usual “violin” but for “vacuum cleaner”), capturing everything from the latest songs on the radio to the headlines in the papers to the food in the fridge. A narrative farrago. The way we live now and now and now—in the trapped yet ongoing animation the present tense suggests. The novel’s protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, is a low-wattage Everyman in whose appetites we are asked to see our postwar American selves. When a nation has never had a medieval epoch, Updike has written, when it is founded from the beginning on rationalism and “nineteenth-century laws of material exchange,” what remains “is a bald consumer…whose genetically determined life-events scarcely warrant the glamorization of fiction.” Yet his Rabbit novels have perhaps provided this glamorization, or surmounted the obstacle.
In much of the rest of his work, one might argue, Updike explores the range of his characters’ “medieval” side, lives shaped by their theological negotiations. Updike came of age, he has written, at a time that “saw the Middle Ages still in favor, as a kind of golden era of cultural unity and alleviated anxiety.” He has even borrowed from medieval dramatis personae, as in his “Tristan and Iseult” stories (retold as well in the novel Brazil) or his novel Gertrude and Claudius. Fellow Lutheran and English major Garrison Keillor recently wrote, satirizing academic prose, “Updike’s verticalization of moral peril parallels the medieval cosmology of mystical painting.” But, well, it is quite conceivably so.
Philip Larkin once said that novels are about others; poems are about oneself. One can imagine a short story falling somewhere in between. Updike’s stories are focused, local meditations, suffused with Updike’s brand of Protestant mysticism, a Christianity not of guilt and sin but of sorrow and beauty. Each story positions itself before a moment of personal wonder and trust, then worries it. Or a story springs from an erotic wound, worries that, then spins an elegant cocoon around as bandage. His artistic gift is equal to his intellect and, happily partnered, neither needs nor seeks to use a story to prove itself. And yet both are proven—inevitably, gracefully, repeatedly. It is quite possible that by dint of both quality and quantity he is American literature’s greatest short-story writer, and arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel. Thus, the significance of this new collection.
The Early Stories is arranged not chronologically by date of composition (though an index provides something of a chronology) but sequentially by subject, like a novel, perhaps a great novel, in sections that could be chapters, and in which we see a masculine sensibility grow and drift and cry out through the disparately aching stages of life from boyhood to early middle age. Each labeled section of this improvised Bildungsroman includes a famous story: “Pigeon Feathers” in the section titled “Olinger Stories”; “The Christian Roommates” in “Out in the World”; “Should Wizard Hit Mommy?” in “Married Life”; “The Music School” in “Family Life”; “Museums and Women” in “The Two Iseults”; “A & P” in “Tarbox Tales”; “Under the Microscope” in “Far Out”; “Separating” in “The Single Life.” In each section Updike has placed other related stories—related in theme and strategy though not always in time of composition. These grouped stories comprise an inexact family. They are sometimes expansions of the more well-known story; sometimes distant relatives. Alternative points of view on the same idea are often offered. From these groupings we can see that like most writers Updike has returned to particular topics, most of which involve the large and small attempts at spiritual breakaway and reconstitution—“flight” in both meanings of the word—by white American boys and men.
“Pigeon Feathers” (in the “Olinger Stories” section) originally sat smack in the center of Updike’s collection by the same name. “Pigeon Feathers” is Updike’s supreme story of boyhood, one of several poignant comedies of excruciation, seemingly conjured from memory, in what has been until now, to my mind, his strongest book. The boy David Kern, after reading H.G. Wells, is struck with fear and horror by Wells’s atheism. Wells’s, David thinks, is “a brain black with the denial of Christ’s divinity.”
And in the momentum of [the boy’s] terror, hideous possibili-ties—the dilation of the sun, the triumph of the insects, the crabs on the shore in The Time Machine —wheeled out of the vacuum of make-believe and added their weight to his impending oblivion.
His own physical self protests against the eternal, demolishing universe. “His protesting nerves swarmed….” The loud intimations of mortality that descend upon him in Sunday school, in the family outhouse, or as he leafs through a dictionary weigh heavily on his heart. There is, too, a backdrop of parental discontent and discord, as well as a dying grandmother. When David is asked by his mother and grandmother to kill the pigeons in the barn, his simmering adolescent and ontological rage now has a target, and what emerges is both an artist’s and an assassin’s sense of purpose:
Out of the shadowy ragged infinity of the vast barn roof these impudent things dared to thrust their heads, presumed to dirty its starred silence with their filthy timorous life, and he cut them off, tucked them back neatly into the silence. He felt like a creator; these little smudges and flickers that he was clever to see and even cleverer to hit in the dim recesses of the rafters—out of each of them he was making a full bird. A tiny peek, probe, dab of life, when he hit it blossomed into a dead enemy, falling with good, final weight.
But it is the beauty of the birds—“banded in slate shades of blue… mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray”—that restores David’s sense of God, and, more comically and heartbreakingly, his own grandiose corollary to that faith: personal immortality. “The God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
Even the gorgeous writing offered in snippets here cannot hint at the literary accomplishment that is the sensitive, searching, bookish character of David Kern (it is Updike, lavishing such craft upon his descriptions of the birds, that has allowed David to live forever; art here outperforms faith), and Updike returns to Kern in other stories, including “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.” In this essayistic tale he is a grown man—Updike makes him a writer (in “The Christian Roommates” he becomes an ad man) contemplating the restaging of missed ceremonies that is the artist’s true life. He loves the worn paths of small towns. Churchgoing captures his imagination. “I tried not to go, but it was not in me not to go,” Kern says within this assemblage of sweet and bitter valentines that lay out the Updikean creed. “We in America,” he writes, in words that become a kind of refrain (“refrain” as both vocal noun and thematic verb in this roaming, meditative story),
have from the beginning been cleaving and baring the earth, attacking, reforming the immensity of nature we were given. We have explored, on behalf of all mankind, this paradox: the more matter is outwardly mastered, the more it overwhelms us in our hearts…. There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church.
A bloody-minded sort of nostalgia inspires and courses through Updike’s work: nostalgia without sentimentality, for no feeling seems forced or faked or secondhand. Updike’s delicate, almost unspoken renunciations of time and change are shown to be spare and tepid balkings, clear-eyed allergies—and his Proustian retrievals of childhood capture much anguish and irritation recalled in grateful tranquillity. He performs the temperamentally athletic feat of nostalgia that never really turns its back on the present. In “Packed Dirt…” David Kern notes the persistent sepia quality to Christianity, even in the churches of Greenwich Village: