Historian Alfred L. Clayton was born in 1936, “the lonely only child of an elderly Republican couple,” and was named after Governor “Alf” Landon of Kansas, loser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. As this novel opens, Clayton has been requested to write his “memories and impressions” of the presidential administration of Gerald Ford for a written symposium on that administration to be published in a scholarly journal. The years of the Ford Administration coincide with a period of turmoil in Clayton’s marriage, when he abandoned his wife Norma (the “Queen of Disorder”) for Genevieve (“the Perfect Wife”), the trim and elegant wife of Brent Mueller, a young assistant professor and pioneer of deconstructionist criticism in the English department at Wayward College. Clayton had been teaching at Wayward and trying to finish his biography of James Buchanan, president of the United States in the years (1857-1861) immediately preceding the election of Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Although Clayton is supposed to be writing a memoir for his professional colleagues, his narrative takes the form of an autobiography that shuttles between the vagaries of his family and love life and his frustrated attempts to finish his Buchanan biography, with sporadic interruptions for passages on his ostensible topic, “memories of the Ford Administration.” Updike provides certain shaky unifying factors for this club sandwich of a novel. All three layers have to do with union—Clayton’s effort to take care of his family (especially his three children) even though he is having an affair, his desperate search for a key to Buchanan’s character that would unify his biography and bring it to a close, and Buchanan’s own futile efforts to appease the South, observe the letter of the law in his enforcement of the Constitution, and thus hold the Union together.
Each layer of the novel is fascinating in its own right. Nobody writes better about the contemporary scene than does John Updike. Alf’s sexual escapades, particularly with Mrs. Arthrop, the mother of one of his nubile students, are hilarious and shrewdly evocative of the middle-aged male’s promiscuity in the time just following the sexual liberation of the 1960’s, when such behavior had become hardly shocking. On the level of social notation, the precise observation of manners and mores, the novel succeeds beautifully.
There is, however, remarkably little public history in the novel, a fact that Clayton notes and excuses because of a preoccupation with his private life. Whatever the reason for omission of real-world politics, the result is that the only substantial connection made between the administrations of Buchanan and Ford is a psychological one—that is, Alf probes Buchanan’s love life even as he is trying to reach some perspective on his own. It is an odd position for a historian to take, ignoring how events in the two epochs entwine, and Updike is at his least convincing in making Alf a historian in spite of the parody of academic procedures, such as using brackets to refer readers to previous pages that back up the historian’s argument.
The second layer, Clayton’s attempt to write a life of President Buchanan, is fascinating for two reasons: The biographical interpretation is profound, and the process by which that interpretation is attained is itself dramatized. In Updike’s view, the outer Buchanan, the wary politician scorned for his compromises, legalisms, and vacillation as the Union was breaking apart, has to be explained in terms of the inner man, a young lawyer capable of love who risked the affections of his beloved, Anne Coleman, in order to perform his duty to society and to assuage his ambitions. Suspected of courting her for her fortune, Buchanan refused to bend to the dictates of her family or to subordinate his commitment to politics to his private passion. Possessed of a diplomatic mind, Buchanan presumed that he could negotiate all matters reasonably, and thus he failed to acknowledge the realm of the irrational, the divorce between logic and emotion that led both to the Civil War and to his disappointment as a lover. As Updike/Clayton interprets events, Buchanan failed because...
(The entire section is 1738 words.)