Busy Minister

A Month of Sundays

by John Updike
Knopf, 228 pp., $6.95

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

In A Month of Sundays a suburban clergyman, disenchanted with his marriage, his vocation, and modern life generally, allows his pastoral care to modulate into taking care of quite a few of his female parishioners. He begins with his organist and goes on to various others, until impotence and disclosure baffle his efforts to make it with the beautiful wife of the chairman of his Board of Deacons. To avoid scandal, his Bishop ships him off to a motel-like rest-and-recreation center for lapsed pastors in Death Valley, from which, during a pleasant enough regimen of golf, poker, cocktails, and daily writing-therapy, he gives us his curious history in the form of a retrospective journal.

I suppose that Updike was drawn to the idea of a clerical hero for a number of reasons. Ministers aren’t bad surrogates for novelists—they too, at least by repute, are literate, thoughtful, sensitive to human pain, good with words, devoted to more than immediate and transient values, accustomed to the presence of attentive audiences. And Updike’s Thomas Marshfield, though stronger in some of these qualities than in others, can indeed sum up his experience as a passable outline for a novel:

A man pledged to goodness and fidelity scorns his wife, betrays one mistress, is ompotent [sic] with another, exploits the trust and unhappiness of some who come to him for guidance, regards his father and his sons as menacing foreign objects, and through it all evinces no distinct guilt but rather a sort of scrabbling restiveness, a sense of events as a field of rubble in which he is empowered to search for some mysterious treasure.

As summary this does well enough for a book that’s in effect a pun on the word “fidelity,” but there are problems, here and elsewhere, in Marshfield’s way of turning the outline into images of life.

For one thing, this account, with its insinuation of a “romance” quest-motif toward the end, seems rather self-protective, right down to the little typo which immediately generates a footnote making nervous comedy out of the “impotent-omnipotent” confusion and its implications for a reader of Meister Eckhart and Aquinas. And the character’s defensiveness, his offer of charm and whimsicality to ward off the simple disapproval his behavior might otherwise seem to call for, reflects a difficulty for which the novelist must be held responsible.

The writing in the book often is almost aggressively overwrought, even for Updike, never one to pretend that his prose hasn’t been written:

I crept from window to window, meeting tactile differentiations among the variety of shrubs the local nursery (which piously kept its Puerto Rican peony-pickers in a state of purposeful peonage) had donated to our holy cause of parsonage improvement.

I listened for the cries it was her wont wantonly to emit in coitus.

Cretinous and cunning as an armadillo, I lay there bathed…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.