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:
In Manhattan, Christianity is so feeble its future seems before it. One walks to church past clattering cafeterias and glowering news vendors in winter weather that is always a shade of Lent, on pave- ments spangled with last night’s vomit.
As his professional doppelgänger, Updike’s fictional novelist Henry Bech (the eponymous hero of Bech Is Back, who appears in the early stories only briefly), suggests of himself, Updike shows “characters whose actions are all determined, at the deepest level, by nostalgia, by a desire to get back, to dive, each, into the springs of their private imagery.” A stunned muteness sometimes befalls these men. The rituals of life derail more than those of death. David Kern, who, while his wife is in labor in an English maternity ward, quietly leaves and comes upon a fatally injured cat, and lays it, both ceremoniously and unceremoniously, beneath a bush to die. “A life demands a life,” says Kern, whose first child is being born back at the hospital. Years later, upon news of his father’s failing heart Kern feels “death had been advancing under cover and now it had struck, declared its position.” Yet he cannot find the proper, consoling words for his dying father and cannot convincingly answer a hitchhiking sailor who asks what the point of his writing is. But fiction is often created from the spirit of the staircase, as the French say, the words one comes up with only later, and derives from a desire—nostalgia, again—for “a ceremony of farewell.” “We in America need ceremonies, is I suppose, sailor, the point of what I have written,” this deeply moving story concludes.
The ceremonies of farewell that take place in Updike’s second section, “Out in the World,” are by and large those of a young man leaving home. How few contemporary short stories there are about college life—despite all the writing programs on American campuses—but Updike has several. In “The Christian Roommates” we see David Kern again, this time at Harvard, but now he is a minor character, his appearance here a virtual cameo. The main character is a South Dakota freshman named Orson, who is more like the brooding boy David Kern was than the collegiate Kern, who now is confident, witty, generous, and quick. Orson is not those things. He has been nicknamed “the Parson” and among his fellow dormmates he feels he has “been sized up as someone easy to startle.” Updike here shows how he is a master of the quiet plot, capturing the emotional, social, and intellectual skirmishes of student life among a handful of diversely gifted young men on a single dormitory corridor.
The story centers on the theological crises of Orson and his roommate, Henry. Henry is a self-invented “Anglican Christian Platonist strongly influenced by Gandhi.” He does yoga, eats no meat, and spins using a spinning wheel and the big toe of one foot. He throws himself daily across the bed in flamboyant prayer, his face in the blanket, his arms spread out. “That’s marvellous,” says Dawson, another hallmate, admiringly. “It’s medieval. It’s more than medieval. It’s Counter-Reformation.” But Orson has begun to hate Henry—his appearance, his manner, his pretensions—“with an avidity of detail he had never known in love.” (There is no writer more poetically articulate about irritation than Updike.) Orson’s first year at Harvard, the very thing that was intended to bring him out of his closed-minded provinciality, turns out to leave a lasting mark of intolerance on him. It is “a kind of scar he carries without pain and without any clear memory of the amputation.” For all his faith, he never again prays.
The other life passages that are represented in “Out in the World” include international travel, romantically available women, and New York City. One of the most stirring stories is “The Lucid Eye in Silver Town,” which describes a young son’s frustration with his father’s lack of sophistication on a trip the two of them take to Manhattan. Culturally peckish in their small Pennsylvania town, both father and son see the city’s opportunities differently—the son wants to glimpse the possibility of a future for himself there; the father wants only to admire the city’s otherness, which his brother, who now lives in the city, represents.
Overcome with self-consciousness and loathing, the son rages hopelessly at his father, upon whom he is still so dependent. The son wants to find a book on Vermeer, but is stymied by the kind of obstacles that typically befall out-of-towners in comic tales of travel. The boy’s lucid eye (physically injured only by an eyelash, though a visit to a doctor is made), especially for the dainty, absurd details that can figure in social class disparities, is characteristically Updikean. “When my ice cream came it was a golf ball in a flat silver dish; it kept spinning away as I dug at it with my spoon.” They run out of both money and time to get the Vermeer book. On the train home the son’s “tantrum ended; it had been a kind of ritual, for both of us.”
“The Lucid Eye in Silver Town” is this collection’s first literary glimpse of New York, a city Updike himself had always hoped to live in but, once settled there, sought refuge from in search of the ordinary life he needed for material and peace. This he found not in the small-town Pennsylvania of his boyhood but in suburban Massachusetts. New York was too “full of other writers and of cultural hassle, and the word game [was] overrun with agents and wisenheimers,” he writes in his foreword. “Agents and Wisenheimers,” mused a literary friend of mine mischievously. “Is that Shillington, Pennsylvania, for ‘Hymietown’?” No, I decided, just the headlong candor of the foreword, and a defensiveness regarding provincial shelter. Also, Updike writes, he wanted “free parking for my car, and public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange.”
Such would have been the necessary camouflage and freedom for the kind of stories Updike has collected here, with their felt kernel of felt life. A Latvian man recently spoke to me of how meaningful Updike’s work was to him when he initially discovered it. “For the first time,” he said, “I believed I was reading something by a fiction writer who wasn’t making things up.” This assumption that his fiction is autobiographical may be wearying and philistine to someone like Updike, though also familiar and anticipated; it is one of the hazards of realism and looked at the right way is a compliment of the profoundest sort.
The section “Married Life” involves the restive state of that institution, or at least of its inmates—a subject Updike has returned to throughout the decades of these stories. Adultery, the conquered citizen’s silent revolt, is already having its secret meetings in Updike’s living rooms and cars, though he leaves the tales of actual divorce for the latter part of The Early Stories. Updike’s husbands are here beginning their condition of bruised pre-exile within their marriages. The Jack of both “Walter Briggs” and “Should Wizard Hit Mommy?,” two stories in which the father’s storytelling to his child figures prominently in the carpet (“Tomorrow,” says the little girl, “I want you to tell me the story that that wizard took that magic wand and hit that mommy”), sees the woodwork of his house as “a cage of moldings and rails and baseboards all around them.” In “Unstuck” the young husband, wanting to share his Christian faith with his wife, finds himself wincing at her cavalier remarks, “feeling himself to blame. If he had given her a climax, she wouldn’t be so irreligious,” he imagines. Later, on his way out,
he noticed a steaming cup of coffee she had poured for him, like one of those little caches one explorer leaves behind for another. To appease her, he took two scalding swallows before heading out into the wilderness of his brilliant back yard.
It is Richard and Joan Maple, Updike’s famously falling-apart couple, who most explicitly and with chilling authenticity express domestic antagonism at its most distilled, and the best stories about them are included here. Their conversations—sparring, ruthless, accusing—“had the final effect of knitting them ever tighter together in a painful, helpless, degrading intimacy.” Updike’s dialogue possesses, often, the feeling of transcripts, full of the dangerous currents of marital strife, and one imagines one feels the life-jolts that prompted them. “Let’s not talk,” says Joan Maple to her husband in “Giving Blood.” But his criticism—of her smugness, of her unsexiness, of her stupidity—continues. “I asked you not to talk,” Joan said. “Now you’ve said things that I’ll never forget.”
But the marriage is sustained by their forgiving lovemaking. “When their tongues at last fell silent, their bodies collapsed together as two mute armies might gratefully mingle, released from the absurd hostilities decreed by two mad kings.” In “Twin Beds in Rome,” the Colosseum itself is “shaped like a shattered wedding cake.” In Rome, Richard Maple manages his deep irritation with “simultaneous doses of honey and gall.” “You’re such a nice woman,” Richard tells his wife. “I can’t understand why I’m so miserable with you.” In this “city of steps” they finally separate, not physically or legally, but in every other way. The marriage lets go “like an overgrown vine whose half-hidden stem has been slashed in the dawn by an ancient gardener.” (“The stripped and shapely /Maple grieves/The loss of her departed leaves,” wrote Updike in the November poem of his A Child’s Calendar.) Back in Boston, Joan Maple becomes involved with the civil rights movement (“Marching Through Boston”). Her self-sufficiency seems to her husband to mock as well as to reengage him, and he finds he can neither let go of her nor love her.
Although he joins her in a political march, out of sheer marital perversity—irritation again—he mimics the “Negroes” shockingly. (It is both stubborn and correct that Updike has decided not to update his terminology for this collection. Some of the locutions, however true to their period, are so interestingly antique now that their meanings are not always instantly clear. When, for instance, one of his characters walks into a roomful of “fairies,” this reader, for a moment seeing wings and wands, had no idea where we were.)
“Family Life” continues, including two additional Maple stories, “Sublimating” and “Eros Rampant,” with thematizing titles. One more comically squabbling one, “Your Lover Just Called,” is placed in “Tarbox Tales.” In its climactic outburst, we see a whole segment of the Tarbox community as well as a moment of American social history helplessly summed up:
“Go to her!” Joan suddenly cried, with a burst of the same defiant energy that made her, on other hungover mornings, rush through a mountain of housework. “Go to her like a man and stop trying to maneuver me into something I don’t understand! I have no lover! I let Mack kiss me because he’s lonely and drunk! Stop trying to make me more interesting than I am! All I am is a beat-up housewife who wants to go play tennis with some other exhausted ladies!”
The tales of Tarbox—a town founded “by men fearful of attack”—follow an unanchored interlude of stories about loneliness and romantic paralysis (“The Two Iseults”), and precede the group of stories labeled “Far Out,” which, proving Cole Porter right (birds do do it), includes the sexual romps of prehistoric animals (“During the Jurassic”)—“Next came the allosaurus, a carnivorous bachelor whose dangerous aura and needled grin excited the female herbivores”—and various protozoa (“Under the Microscope”), though without Updike’s original illustrations as they first appeared in The Transatlantic Review.* These satirical stories (Updike once worked on The Harvard Lampoon) are narrated as the supposed cocktail parties of the doomed and are hilarious, inspired, and frothily bleak:
The party was thinning…. Out of mercy as much as appetite, he ate her. She felt prickly inside him. Hurriedly—the rooms were almost depleted, it was late—he sought his hostess. She was by the doorway, her antennae frazzled from waving goodbye, but still magnificent…. “Don’t go,” she commanded, expanding. “I have a minuscule favor to ask. Now that my children, all thirteen million of them, thank God, are off at school, I’ve taken a part-time editing job, and my first real break is this manuscript I’d be so grateful to have you read and comment on….”
The ultimate section, “The Single Life,” contains the most famous Maple stories and the book’s climax, the sorrowing “Separating” and “Gesturing.” (The Maples are largely in a gerund state.) These stories are powerful with or without their predecessors. In them the Maples separate, openly take lovers, tell the children, divorce. And here, too, is the most affecting and trenchant toast to the first wife:
He saw through her words to what she was saying—that these lovers, however we love them, are not us, are not sacred as reality is sacred. We are reality. We have made children. We gave each other our young bodies. We promised to grow old together.
Everything and everyone else is just shadow play, gesturing, an echo, unreal.
“Isn’t it amazing,” Joan says at the end, in what is one of the most unexpectedly haunting and improbably perfect lines of the book, “how a full bottle of wine isn’t enough for two people any more?”
Updike’s storied and nuanced sense of the friendship between husbands and wives is a generous and complex one, and rewards each return visit he makes. Ordinary friendship (a subject ironically central to the work of the deeply Updike-influenced Ann Beattie) is largely missing in his fictional world; a dearth of this subject might be considered to constrict the otherwise wide and encompassing lens of this collection. But then these are just the early stories. There are the beautiful “middle stories” presumably to come—“A Sandstone Farmhouse,” “The Cats,” to name only two, in which the mother’s abiding and muse-like friendship persists beyond the grave. As for the “late stories”? Let no living writer this distinguished be thought to have written them yet. May David Kern’s lavishing God and the second wife assist.
November 20, 2003