Rabbit Undone

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel

by John Updike
Knopf, 359 pp., $25.00

The meaning of John Updike’s new title, Licks of Love, becomes clear only when you glance at the dust jacket, where a round-bottomed banjo with a long skinny neck leans like a jaunty exclamation mark upward across the cover. A “lick,” in the kind of music that might be played on a banjo, is something short and rhythmic, without any of the cumulative elaborations of a straight-out melody. A lick, in music as in love, may be savory, but it is small. And as you plunge into Updike’s Licks of Love, the title does seem well chosen. The book contains a dozen short stories, and some of those stories (“The Women Who Got Away,” “Lunch Hour,” “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace,” “Oliver’s Evolution”) are so slight and cursory as to seem more like anecdotes than stories—licks, not melodies.

Even the title story, “Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War,” keeps within a modest range. A hotshot banjo player meets a young woman at a party, casually goes to bed with her, and, afterward, as he makes his way around the old Soviet Union on a State Department tour, finds himself followed everywhere he goes by a barrage of embarrassing and slightly mad love letters. It is a clever story, and it scatters a fine dust of wit and pathos over Updike’s familiar observation that any time sex makes an appearance, all hell is bound to break loose.

A few of the other stories in the collection add postscripts to one or another earlier tale or novel. “The Cats” brings us back to something very like the old homestead in the early novel Of the Farm from 1965 (except that everyone’s name seems to have changed). The narrator’s elderly mother has finally died, and the sexual tensions of youth have faded, and the old farm is overrun with cats who, like ghosts and childhood memories, seem impossible to get rid of. “His Oeuvre” tells a story of Updike’s frustrated Jewish novelist, Henry Bech, touring the country and at each new place running into one of his lovers from long ago—a heartbroken old man who, like someone in an Arthur Schnitzler play, has learned to anesthetize himself against the defeats and disappointments of today by savoring the amorous triumphs of yesterday.

“His Oeuvre” is the best of the stories here (and will soon, in March, reappear as the conclusion to a new Everyman’s edition of The Complete Henry Bech). But for all the skill in that story and two or three others, Licks of Love is likely to strike you as too modest by half—until, having got past the dozen stories, you come to “Rabbit Remembered.” This, at 182 pages, is no lick at all. It is an unexpected new installment of Updike’s Rabbit series, to put at the end of Rabbit, Run and the next three novels, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. You might almost be expected to say, in stumbling on…


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