My Father's Tears
Over the last four decades, John Updike managed to issue at least one book each year. Updike died in January, 2009, and My Father’s Tears, and Other Stories is likely to be the final work of his fiction to be published. (His publishers have announced that a collection of Updike’s later poetry is forthcoming.) Throughout his brilliant career, Updike regularly collected awards for his work, and My Father’s Tears seems a fitting farewell from a writer who has been called one of the most important and insightful chroniclers of twentieth century middle-class America.
The eighteen stories in My Father’s Tears were all previously published, most within the last decade. Their subjects will be instantly familiar to those who have read Updike regularly: childhood, marriage and divorce, infidelity, and the quest to make sense of life and the afterlife. The latter quest in Updike’s hands includes speculations about the possibility that a divine being exists who offers some ultimate meaning to people struggling to get by in a world where ordinary events take on extraordinary importance.
While several of the collection’s stories describe the adventures and minor mishaps of Americans abroad, most are set either in Pennsylvania, where Updike grew up, or in New England, where he made his home after returning from studies at England’s Oxford University in the late 1950’s. Quite a number of these stories share affinities with a group of earlier ones Updike dubbed “Olinger stories.” These tales were set in and around the town of Olinger, Updike’s fictionalized version of Shillington, Pennsylvania, where he was raised as an only child by his parents and grandparents.
Like the earlier Olinger stories, newer ones such as “The Guardians,” “The Walk with Elizanne,” “The Laughter of the Gods,” and “Kinderszenen” reflect on childhood, but these newer narratives do so most often from the perspective of an elderly man taking stock of his life as he recognizes that it is drawing to a close. Perhaps the most poignant of these is “The Road Home,” in which the protagonist, who fled from rural Pennsylvania half a century earlier to escape what he then perceived as its suffocating atmosphere, returns home for a reunion with several high school classmates. As he drives around, frequently lost, he begins to realize that, although the terrain has changed markedly, he still bears fond memories of growing up in this nurturing environment.
It should probably not be surprising to find so many elderly men at center stage in Updike’s late fiction. For a half century, many of his protagonists bore a striking if oblique resemblance to their creator. On occasion, Updike represented the minds of women, most notably in The Witches of Eastwick (1984), its sequel The Widows of Eastwick (2008), and S. (1988), part of his rather ambitious trilogy that attempts to remake Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) for modern readers. Generally, however, Updike concentrated on male characters who were close in age to himself. This is not to suggest that either the earlier work or the stories in My Father’s Tears are simply disguised autobiography. Rather, it is to recognize that Updike most often achieved success when he transformed his own experiences into fiction.
At times, this tendency to concentrate on protagonists whose experience resembled his own has led some critics to fault Updike for what might be called “creative myopia.” Updike contributed to that perception by adopting a kind of Walt Whitmanesque stance toward his work, made most obvious in the opening lines of his 1969 poem Midpoint, in which he says “Of nothing but me, me// I sing, lacking another song.” By extrapolating from his own experience, these lines suggest, he could describe the human conditionor at least the condition of middle-class America, with all its hopes and all its angst.
While many of the stories in My Father’s Tears evince an autobiographical impulse, it would be unfortunate to judge all of them by that criterion. Updike could create characters and situations far beyond his personal experiences, as evidenced by the haunting portrayal of African...
(The entire section is 1756 words.)