(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

In an imaginary interview that he gave to his character Henry Bech when Memories of the Ford Administration appeared in 1992, John Updike confessed that “some time ago I reached the age when everything I did was, more or less, a sequel to something I had done earlier.” Certainly this is true of Licks of Love, a collection that consists of a series of remembrances of things past, new stories on familiar themes in equally familiar settings.

“We have one home, the first, and leave that one,” Updike wrote in his early poem “Shillington.” “The having and leaving go on together.” Throughout his career of more than forty years, the rural Pennsylvania home that he left behind when he headed off to Harvard at eighteen has remained tremendously vivid to Updike, furnishing him with a physical landscape and a moral geography, a cache of memories and a cast of characters that have shaped some of his best work. In Licks of Love, the hometown that he christened Olinger and several of the alter egos that he invented in his earliest Pennsylvania stories reappear. “Lunch Hour” and “The Cats” bring back David Kern, the character introduced as a boy in the title story of Updike’s second collection, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962), and presented as an adult in that collection’s concluding story, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.” Allen Dow, the young protagonist of “Flight,” one of the most powerful stories in that early collection, reappears as the unnamed narrator of one of this collection’s most effective stories, “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace.”

Characters from Updike’s later work also return in these stories. Martin Fredericks, who was originally introduced in “Killing” (in the 1987 collection Trust Me) and returned in “The Journey to the Dead” in The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994), is the rueful, reminiscing narrator ofLicks of Love’s first story, “The Women Who Got Away.” Don Fairbairn of “How Was It, Really?” is the latest in the series of aging, nostalgic men with names that begin with “F” who have populated a group of stories that Updike has written since the mid-1970’s—men such as Ferris of “Guilt Gems” and Fraser of “Domestic Life in America” inProblems and Other Stories (1979), or Foster of “Still of Some Use,” Fegley of “Learn a Trade,” and Fulham of “The Wallet” in Trust Me. “His Oeuvre” is a Bech story that appeared in The New Yorker after Bech at Bay (1998). “Licks of Love” seems like a Bech story in disguise, with Henry Bech recast as a famous banjo player and renamed Eddie Chester, but still acting out his familiar roles of cultural ambassador and celebrity.

Other stories in the new collection, such as “New York Girl,” “Natural Color,” “Scenes from the Fifties,” and “Metamorphosis,” do not revive former characters. Instead, they return to the New York City, suburban Boston, and Back Bay locales of most of his non-Pennsylvania stories and treat subjects such as marriage, infidelity, and divorce among the middle and upper classes that Updike long ago claimed as his own in collections such as The Music School (1966) and Museums and Women and Other Stories (1972), and in novels like Couples (1968).

Aside from “Oliver’s Evolution,” an experiment in “snapfiction,” each of the stories in the first half of Licks of Love offers the satisfactions that Updike’s readers expect of his short fiction. “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace” and “The Cats” are among his best. The novella Rabbit Remembered, however, which makes up the second half of the book, is definitely the highlight of this charmlessly named collection. (It should have been titled Rabbit Remembered and Other Stories.) The real news about Licks of Love is that Updike has begun his fifth decade as a novelist as he began each of the last four: by surveying the American scene in a novel about the world of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

Since Harry died at the end of Rabbit at Rest (1990), this is no small feat. When he published that book, which was described as the final installment of the series, Updike justified his decision to end Harry’s story in a Florida hospital as a product, in part, of his own intimations of mortality. Fortunately, at sixty-eight his energy and imagination show no signs of flagging: In the eighteen months between the middle of 1999 and the end of 2000 he published three books, including the 856-pageMore Matter (1999), the ingenious and provocative Gertrude and Claudius (2000), and Licks of Love. Since he had turned to Harry at the end of each decade of his writing life, when he reached 1999 in good health he naturally began thinking about him...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)