'My father's tears and other stories' by John Updike
It's a comfort to learn that John Updike maintained a stubborn equilibrium in his last years, a balancing act that kept him in the restrained middle range of emotion right up to the end of his life in January.
It's a comfort but also a frustration that he never broke through the ice of his cool. In the midst of crisis, that steady well-modulated voice was always heard. There were times when I wanted to shake his bony shoulders and demand that he let go, open his writing up to that deep and, I think, troubled soul that avoided the light.
Updike wrote about his reserve in the essay collection "Hugging the Shore," the title he chose to symbolize his careful nature.
In this, his final collection of short stories, Updike never breaks his composure, even though it was clear his life was winding down.
The title story flirts as usual with the real details of the writer's life -- his childhood in Central Pennsylvania, his departure for an Eastern college, his two marriages and, as he grew closer in age to his parents in their elderly years, accounts of their lives.
By John Updike
"I saw my father cry only once," the narrator writes as they were waiting together at the local train station to leave for college.
"It shocked me -- threw me off track, as it were -- to see that my father's eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears."
These solid Keystone State men don't cry; they don't hug each other, either, but these tears stood for the abiding love that the father had for his only child, now becoming a man.
"But my father did foresee, the glitter in his eyes told me, that time consumes us -- that the boy I had been was dying, if not already dead, and we would have less and less to do with each other."
The narrator then shifts to his father-in-law, "an eminent Unitarian minister," a placid, untroubled member of the clergy who valued his naps and card games. The narrator would divorce his daughter for a woman who "boiled at the same temperature," a decision that relieved his parents.
His father "didn't think she [the first wife] was feminine enough for you," his mother told him.
Updike frequently referred to his native state as his true emotional home. In this story, he makes it clear "that I have never really left Pennsylvania, that is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition."
There's so much quintessential Updike in this story, including the egotistical narrator and his offhanded attitude toward women and relationships. It's practically the condensed version of most of his fiction, including the ending.
Learning of his father's death while vacationing in Italy, the narrator senses "the opportunity and the rightness of seizing" that moment to cry.
"I don't believe I did. My father's tears had used up mine."
The 17 other stories carry on in a similar vein, but none is as sad as "My Father's Tears." They are the same kind of small, controlled and carefully detailed pieces, studded here and there with those flashes of stunning bits of pure writing that Updike was so skilled at.
When he reaches out of his zone in "Varieties of Religious Experience," the man on the balance beam begins to tip and frantically hunts for the center again.
The story is Updike's attempt to come to grips with Sept. 11 in four separate episodes surrounding the event. None is developed fully enough in the restricted space. They might have been better placed in a novel where Updike could take his time fleshing out the bones.
But the writer excelled at the short form. His legacy remains solidly in place in his farewell to the many readers who can no longer look forward to "the next Updike."
First Published May 31, 2009 12:00 am