A student in a literature seminar once asked John Updike accusingly, “Why are all your characters the same?” Without appearing to be riled in the least, Updike replied, “I don’t think they are.” Readers of Updike’s fiction will appreciate this anecdote: The question may occur to them (perhaps often) as they read through his corpus, as in work after work after work they encounter introspective men and women, seemingly obsessed with sex, occasionally distressed by questions of religion; on the other hand, the answer will seem equally apparent to those who read Updike’s fiction carefully.
The reward in reading Updike’s stories lies in discerning the subtle differences among his characters, detecting the idiosyncrasies that set each of his heroes or heroines apart from many others who resemble them. Collectively, Updike’s men and women suggest the Lonely Crowd—individuals so much alike in so many ways, but each facing the perils and disappointments of his or her life alone, strangers even among those they call friends or lovers.
Hard-core lovers of Updike who track down his miscellaneous short publications as they appear in the magazines to which he habitually contributes will find nothing new in Trust Me. This eighth collection of Updike’s short fiction is much like its seven predecessors, in that all the stories in the volume have appeared in print separately, most in The New Yorker. While most are set in New England, scene does not serve to bind the stories in the way it does in Olinger Stories (1964), nor does a central figure dominate these pieces (as is the case in Bech: A Book, 1970, or Bech is Back, 1982).
At first glance, Trust Me may provoke the same question that the young seminar student asked. One may find it difficult to read through this collection cover-to-cover without confusing the stories. The heroes and heroines have much in common. Updike takes great pains to make these men and women similar to one another. What happens to all these fictional people is clearly limited to domestic triumphs and tragedies. They experience the ups and downs of middle-class life, nothing that will ever make the headlines of even the local papers in small New England towns. In their commonality, however, lies their special appeal: They closely resemble many of the real people who read about them.
The narrator in “Deaths of Distant Friends” may be seen as a paradigm of the protagonists in this collection. Himself middle-aged, he plods through his uneventful life, mildly satisfied with the high points, rather dissatisfied with the low points. His body slowly giving way to age, he is made painfully aware of his own impending death as he learns that three people whom he had known when he was younger have died. The enigma of death is highlighted in the narrator’s reflections at the end of the story: “All three of these deaths make me happy, in a way,” he muses, because “witnesses to my disgrace are being removed.” Death is for him “a mercy,” because as others die they take with them parts of those who remain behind, until those who are left are really only living shells of their former selves. The notion that living is a collective experience comes through strongly here, and that no man can live a truly fulfilling life without the comradeship of others. Man’s need for others, and his concurrent difficulty in building lasting relationships to satisfy that need, is the underlying theme of all the stories in the volume. The idea will certainly have appeal to a majority of readers who will see themselves in many of the characters and situations in these stories.
This is not to suggest that Trust Me is not without faults. Several other stories are disappointingly predictable in both form and theme. The father in “Learn a Trade” rants about his son pursuing a career as an artist—something the father did himself as a young man—until he sees the products of his son’s labor. The travelers to the uncorrupted jungle village in “The Ideal Village” discover that they cannot abide this idyllic life-style, even observing as they return to the more comforting, if...
(The entire section is 1725 words.)