Updike's 'Tears' a farewell

  • Article by: MARK ATHITAKIS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2009 - 3:23 PM

Characters at the end of life look back in this somber final collection from John Updike.

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2009 at age 76. Updike at the Boston Public Library, May 18, 2006.

Photo: Robert Spencer, New York Times

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Although John Updike died in January, it will be a while before his prodigious output is exhausted in the marketplace. A book of poems, "Endpoint," came out in April; August will see "The Maples Stories," an updated version of a collection first published in 1970 as "Too Far to Go," and further reshufflings of his essays and fiction are inevitable. But, lacking news of undiscovered manuscripts, "My Father's Tears" compiles the last short stories Updike wrote. It will be fitting if so. Deeply concerned with aging, looking backward out of a sense that the end is coming, the stories are mostly somber and funereal in tone. The book, much like "Endpoint," is Updike's elegy for himself.

That feeling is bolstered by the fact that a number of the stories concern Olinger, the mythical Pennsylvania town where Updike set much of his early work. The protagonist of "The Laughter of the Gods" questions his mother about his parents' courtship there in the '20s, and the elderly man in "The Road Home" returns to that town, where he "felt the tracks of his ancestors all around him." Even when the stories aren't so sepia-toned, themes of memory and mortality are strong, most potently in "Varieties of Religious Experience," a set of vignettes depicting 9/11's participants and victims.

The pieces are all recognizably Updike: His characters are typically men wrestling with faith and infidelity, and, as he often has in his career, he does them more honor than they always deserve by gracing them with his winking, observant prose. "Time's blue light flushes out everything immature, ill-considered, or not considered at all," he writes, as if forgiving these men their long-ago caddishness.

There are signs that he was falling off his game toward the end. His 2008 story "Outage," for instance, unconvincingly attempts to use a power failure to concoct a sexual connection between two neighbors. His sense of humor and candor about sex, so readily at his command in the '70s and '80s, here slips from his grasp and turns awkward and muted. What he didn't lose was a capacity to express his curiosity about aging, and how curious it felt: "Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately," he writes in the book's final story, "The Full Glass." These stories, mostly published since 2000, individually read as sage takes on memory and growing old. Packing them together is strangely revealing -- there's an uncanny, affecting sense that he spent nearly a decade writing his farewells.

Mark Athitakis is a writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.

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  • My Father's Tears by John Updike

  • MY FATHER'S TEARS AND OTHER STORIES

    By: John Updike.

    Publisher: Alfred A.Knopf, 304 pages, $25.

    Review: While some of the stories lack the vigor of his earlier work, taken as a whole this final collection from Updike -- published six months after his death -- is a sage and powerful look at growing old.

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