Cock-a-doodle-doo

Couples

by John Updike
Knopf, 485 pp., $6.95

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

The couples live in Tarbox. Come. It is in places marshy. There are trees, lawns of fine description, bodies, houses like them, banks of purply flowered scenes, courts for games, arousing speeches, and the groaning culminations of many amorous machines. That’s because the principal industry in Tarbox is fucking. They think of it, Elizabethanly, as dying, in Tarbox; descents to hell, indeed, are taken every day—through wood-dark poetries unwarily entered by the middleaged. No one dies in Tarbox of too little. Not only the place but the people bear distinguishing names. The heroine is called Foxy by her friends; a dentist whose tongue is like a dental pick (the souls in Tarbox have teeth) is named Thorne, his wife, Georgene; the heedless hero (always in dutch) is Piet Hanema; the pairs most set on swapping are blended prettily together as the Applesmiths. It is a fortunate thing that a family of sheep didn’t stray into town, the combinations might have proved too distracting, especially since this novel is clearly the suburbanite entry in the porno pageant, and I suspect such softloaf sophisticates do not delight in the truly unusual: mulogeny or grampalingus, for instance, meatusfoetus or intermissolonghi. Conversant with the modern texts of sexual hygiene, every reader can redream the acts he reads quite guiltlessly. The obscene, sometimes, can even set a standard. Tarbox sex is often oral, but that’s the way with writers; the penis was never Nature’s purposed instrument of speech.

Mouths, Piet thought, are noble. They move in the brain’s court. We set our genitals mating down below like peasants, but when the mouth condescends, mind and body marry. To eat another is sacred. I love thee, Elizabeth, thy petaled rankness, thy priceless casket of nothing lined with slippery buds.

A perfect wedding of style and subject, writing like this is just the love it describes: you must sweep swiftly by in a wash of passion, for if you stop to reflect you may retch with laughter. In order to handle such scenes successfully, the writer must be sure of his own sexuality; otherwise there will be failures of observation and feeling, and he will render them disgusting or ridiculous, attacking indirectly what he thought he wished, so pointedly, to praise. In Of the Farm, a far more tightly controlled though less ambitious book, there is only one such passage.

…entered, she yields a variety of landscapes, seeming now a snowy rolling perspective of bursting cotton bolls seen through the Negro arabesques of a fancywork wroughtiron balcony…

and so on. It was an unheeded warning.

The steeple of the Congregational Church in Tarbox is tipped with a golden colonial rooster, an English copper glinting in its eye. It has already survived several structures which were destroyed or remodeled beneath it.

Children in the town grew up with the sense that the bird was God.…


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