The Afterlife and Other Stories
No other living writer is so unmistakably identified with that well-known brand of modem fiction called The New Yorker story as John Updike is. A master of lyrical prose style, minimalist plot, and ennuied character, Updike seems to have always been there waiting for readers in the thickly textured and inconspicuously placed columns of The New Yorker’s slick, cartoon-populated pages. Thus, it was inevitable, although it is still disconcerting to discover, that this former “whiz kid” of the smooth and subtle prose style has grown old. It was only a matter of time after the death of his best- known character creation, Rabbit Angstrom, that Updike would infuse the short-story form—of which he has always been a consummate master—with his own experience of middle age.
The title of this collection of short fictions, also the title of the first story, reflects a typical Updike irony: Instead of alluding to some metaphysical realm, Updike’s “afterlife” is that ambiguous human condition just past middle age. In fact, midlife is such a pervasive theme of these stories that the primary Library of Congress search key for the book is “Middle-aged persons—United States—Fiction.” Updike, in his sixties, has written here about men mostly in their fifties and sixties, who have entered such a state with, if not joy, at least graceful acceptance.
Carter Billings, the fiftyish hero of the title story, is startled to discover that many of his friends are doing sudden, surprising things in their middle age. When he and his wife go to visit one such couple who have moved to England, Billings has an incidental encounter with his own mortality that unsettles his settled ways. Waking up one night to go to the bathroom in the strange house, he tumbles down the stairs until the knob of a banister post strikes him a solid blow in the center of his chest. The ache all the next day makes him feel delicate, alert, and excited. As is typical of the modern short story, although the incident is minor and domestic, it is symbolic of something more serious. As a result, Billings thinks of his life as merely going through the motions and realizes with chagrin that there are vast areas of the world about which he no longer cares.
His impulsive purchase of an expensive eighteenth century bureau made of elm burl is also a simple domestic act, but it signifies his shift to flirting with the surprising and the unpredictable. As Billings and his wife make their way back to the home of their friends after some sightseeing, a fierce Atlantic storm strikes. Billings perceives a “miraculous lacquer” over each roadside twig, each reed of thatch in the roofs, each tiny daisy in the grass, and thinks of the sensitive center of his chest as being the seal of a nocturnal pact, a passport to this particular day. Thus, when the Billingses arrive home to find his friend worried about them, Billings, having had his epiphany, muses that they are all beyond that now. “The Afterlife” is a typical delicate Updike story, lyrical, low-key, and resonant with realization.
“A Sandstone Farmhouse,” the longest story in the collection and first-place winner of the 1991 O. Henry Award, is also understated, lyrical, and elegiac. The structure of the piece is simple and predictable: Joey, fifty-four, must “deal with” his mother’s possessions that have accumulated in the old farmhouse where she was born and has recently died—a plot premise that presages a nostalgic focus on the past. As Joey goes through his mother’s effects, she comes alive to him as a young woman with a life of hope and desire of her own. Comparing his own transitory life in Manhattan to the solidity of the stone building where his mother lived, Joey discovers that although he had always wanted to be where the action was, it turned out that what action there was had been there in the farmhouse.
Although these stories reflect quiet recognition and acceptance, some of them convey a sad sense of having irrevocably passed important milestones. In “Conjunctions,” Geoffrey Parrish, approaching sixty, finds through his new telescope a “small comfortable place in the spangled void” of the winter sky, where Jupiter and Mars seem to trace some movement of “titanic gears.” The relationship of the planets is a metaphor for the mystery of his relationship with his wife, which began with romance under the stars but which, inevitably, seems now to be like a wound that has nearly healed. In “Short Easter,” Fogel is sixty-two; aware that retirement is drawing close, he finds all sorts of reasons for irritation. The increasing failures of his body anger him; he is becoming more and more absent-minded; he wishes that he had a younger wife. Nothing “happens” in the story except that on Easter—the traditional holiday of rebirth—he sneaks into his son’s old room to take a nap. When he awakens alone and disoriented, he...
(The entire section is 2018 words.)