Those familiar with the John Updike corpus will find this latest novel typical of his work: biting humor, description of the ordinary with extraordinary clarity and carefully chosen language, fleshed-out pictures of his flawed but compelling characters. Perhaps predictably, Updike's fleshing out includes pervasively bawdy, sexually explicit scenes which, in spite of their prolonged detail, come off remarkably less sordid than similar descriptions one might find in romance novels. The passages, always well written and stubbornly candid, float above the tawdry and the titillating. They evoke some of Updike's earlier work in Couples (1968) and S. (1988).
Villages introduces to the world a new Updike character, this time a sexually spent seventy-something, Owen Mackenzie. His intensely active professional life is behind him, likewise his sexual glory years. Owen exhausts his well-financed retirement days painting and his dream-filled nights avoiding sexual encounter with his energetic and younger second wife. In many ways Owen possesses the unlikable characteristics that one is accustomed to finding in previous Updike protagonists. The shadow of Rabbit past looms over the figure of Owen present. As a young man, Owen is talented and single-mindedly driven to succeed in the budding software industry. As he grows older and increasingly successful in business, it is clear that personally he remains shallow, self-absorbed, and only slightly aware of anyone else—unless that someone is sexually attractive to him. Such distractions seem to come generously and often, much like the incessant targets on a carnival shooting gallery stage which keep replicating themselves until all the ammunition has been exhausted. In his dotage there is little that seems to redeem poor Owen. Nevertheless, the reader reads on, perhaps hoping for a deathbed metanoia.
The first chapter finds Owen, retired, in the present. He is determined to avoid the early morning invitation of his wife, Julia, to engage in sex play. He successfully rebuffs her advances, rolls over, and falls back asleep into a bizarre and frightening dream, in which he encounters his wife dead and disrobed in what appears to be a hospital room. The scene is loaded with sexual imagery and unresolved questions. In the dream Owen feels responsible for the wife's death—a suicide—but wakes confused. His wife, very much alive, prepares coffee and listens to early morning radio in quotidian regularity.
As the succeeding chapters reveal Owen's history, he is portrayed as a normal prepubescent boy, full of the awakenings of sexual desire that one would expect in young males. He observes, tests, and, in some cases, tentatively acts out his fantasies. As he grows to adulthood, sex for Owen becomes more central, almost obsessive in his life. He grows older but apparently does not mature. He marries beautiful Phyllis, who is his intellectual equal but who does not possess the same intensity of sexual drive as her up-and-coming husband. He seeks satisfaction in extensive and varietal sexual activity with a parade of women in lustful fantasies, prolonged and often contrived affairs, and sometimes in one-night stands. Some encounters are sexually restrained, while others are flagrantly frivolous—a kind of potpourri of sexual tastings.
The middle chapters of the book are, appropriately, titled “Village Sex I” through “Village Sex VI.” Perhaps the author is trying to underline the ordinariness, as he sees it, of the sexual encounter in the sexually awakened times of the late twentieth century. It is in the unremarkable “village” of ordinary time that an obsessive and insistent pattern drums away and ultimately blocks out the sounds of sane and normal living. Yet rampant sexual encounters are not accepted as orthodox in the small towns of middle America. They are the object of disapproval, sometimes shock, and eventually heartache for the participants as well as for their families. The name of...
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