In an interview in the Paris Review, John Updike confessed that The Centaur seemed his truest and liveliest book, a book which he was prompted to write in order to publicize the myth of Chiron, one of the few instances of self-sacrifice from the classical world. The novel contains an interesting, if at times rather disturbing, mixture of classical figures amid a realistic setting. The purpose of the actual presence of the mythological figures was to expand the significance of Peter Caldwell’s nostalgia and to counterpoint an ideal with a drab level of reality.
The story is told by Peter Caldwell, who describes himself as a mediocre abstract expressionist painter. In the course of the novel, Peter, who lives in Greenwich Village with his black girlfriend, re-creates a three-day period immediately after World War II, when he was a teenager. Through his recollection, Peter is able to understand his father, George, with a clarity denied him as a younger man, and he recognizes the self-sacrifice that his father made in order to enable his son to pursue his career as an artist.
The novel opens abruptly within the mode of the mythological by introducing Chiron—disguised as a high school science teacher—who has been wounded in the ankle by an arrow in accordance with the Greek myth. He limps out of the classroom on his remaining three hooves to Al Hummel’s garage to have the arrow removed. Chiron returns to his classroom by way of the school basement to avoid the principal, who hectors him throughout the novel. In keeping with the mythological setting of the first chapter, the centaur recalls meeting Al Hummel’s wife, Vera, in the guise of Venus, once before in the school basement. The image of her emerging from the steam of the girls’ locker room suggests both her desire for and rejection of the half-man, half-stallion. Back upstairs, Chiron finds that Louis M. Zimmerman, the principal, has taken over his class in his absence. Chiron concludes this chapter by delivering a lecture on the origins of the universe to his increasingly restive class.
The second chapter, written entirely in realistic terms, begins the action of the plot by having Peter remember a wintry morning when he was fifteen years old: He overhears a conversation between his parents in which George/Chiron confesses his fear that he has cancer. Peter wonders about disease and mortality and his psoriasis, the curse that he hides from others. Peter and his father leave for school in their converted Buick hearse, stopping along the way to pick up a hitchhiker, who makes them late when George accedes to his demands to be driven to a place that is out of their way.
The remainder of the narrative traces, for the most part, the adventures of Peter and his father as they visit the doctor’s office for an examination and a set of X rays, attend a high school swimming meet, spend the night in a cheap hotel after their car fails to start, go to a high school basketball game the next evening, get stuck in the snow and spend the night with the Hummels, and finally return home, where they discover that the X rays did not reveal any disease. The next morning, Peter, sick with a fever and a cold, watches as his father once more returns to his teaching duties at the high school. The novel is brought full circle when in the final chapter the narrative returns to the mythological setting and Chiron accepts his own death, although he has been given a momentary reprieve.
The novel is one of discovery for Peter, who in recalling this brief three days of his adolescence has the opportunity to reflect on the life that he took for granted and on the people whom he also accepted without reflection. The novel is not, however, elegiac in the vein of Updike’s next extended fiction, Of the Farm (1965), the third of the Olinger novels. In the epilogue to The Centaur , Zeus expresses his love for his old friend Chiron by setting him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius, who still assists in...
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