The Early Stories: 1953 - 1975

by John Updike

Published by Knopf

838 pages, 2003




Blithe Celebration

Reviewed by John Keenan


The principal sensation of John Updike's fiction is delight. The author feels joy in the world as it impresses itself upon him. He conveys this mood with such evocative dexterity that the reader willingly submits to the luxuriant style, the overflow of simile and metaphor, an almost numbing profusion of quotidian detail. In his introduction to "Surviving; The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green" (itself collected in More Matter, published in 1999), Updike describes Green as a writer of singular "intuition, sensuality and finish," epithets which apply with equal bearing to Updike himself.

The Early Stories collects 103 short stories -- all but four of the 107 that Updike wrote between the ages of 21 and 43; they follow the contours, in the author's personal life, of a Harvard education, early success in New York, and the vicissitudes of a first marriage. In the public sphere, they span the course of the Vietnam War and the arms race, of America's climb to the top of the heap.

World events, however, impinge obliquely upon Updike's citizens and violence is uncommon. As the author states in his introduction, his generation experienced the "patriotic cohesion" of World War II without having to bear arms and the white middle-class majority in the United States discovered that, in the main, hard work paid dividends. No insurgents, Updike's characters are comfortable with their country's blithe dominion. Here is the narrator of "How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time" (published in 1972, the year that Richard Nixon lied and burgled his way to reelection before authorizing the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the most squalid act in the nation's filthiest war):

Across the street, in a little main square pared to insignificance by successive widenings of the highway, an old covered wagon instead of a statue stands. Think of those dead unknown -- plodding flights of angels -- who dared cross this land of inhuman grandeur without highways, without air conditioning, without even (a look underneath confirms) shock absorbers, jolting and rattling each inch, in order to arrive here and create this town, wherein this wagon has become a receptacle for (a look inside discovers) empty cans of Coors Beer, Diet Pepsi, and Mountain Dew.

America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.

Elsewhere, a man lies next to his wife in bed as she reads about Nixon -- "every fiendish trick, every low adaptation" -- and thinks: "Oh my Lord, let's let the poor man go to bed. We're none of us perfect."

The one political experience which is allowed any prominence is the civil rights movement, which forms the backdrop to a story concerning a couple called Richard and Joan Maple. The pattern of the Maple's troubled marriage is traced with filigree fineness by Updike in 13 stories in this gathering; in "Marching through Boston," an essentially domestic American issue -- the demands for equal treatment and improved circumstances for black people -- is rendered conjugal, as it becomes the stimulus for the husband to satirize what he regards as the shallow liberalism of his wife.

If external conflict is muted in Updike's oeuvre, interior arguments at times border on the strident. His husbands, fathers and sons (there are but two stories in this volume -- "The Rescue" and "Killing" -- in which events are viewed from the female perspective) share with their creator a sense of the numinous founded upon the Lutheran creed, which the German-American philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich defined as "an awareness of the irrational and demonic nature of existence, an appreciation of the mystical element in religion..." It is an awareness haltingly apprehended by the young boy in "Pigeon Feathers" (1960), discarded by the undergraduate in "The Christian Roommates" (1963), explicated by the narrator of "The Music School" (1963) and accepted by the prostitute's trick in "Transaction" (1973).

Updike's protagonists are appreciative of their good fortune, but haunted by the realization that it is transitory and, from a Christian standpoint, illusory. The theme runs through 11 stories grounded in Updike's Pennsylvanian boyhood (originally published in a volume entitled "Ollinger Stories," in 1964 and here rescued from out-of-print oblivion). The final story in the Ollinger section, "In Football Season," beautifully summons the mixture of joy and grief of innocence recollected:

The hour or more behind me, which I had spent so wastefully, in walking when a trolley would have been swifter, and so wickedly, in blasphemy and lust, was past and forgiven me; it had been necessary; it was permitted.

Now I peek into windows and open doors and I do not find that air of permission. It has fled the world. Girls walk by me carrying their invisible bouquets from fields still steeped in grace, and I look up in the manner of one who follows with his eyes the passage of a hearse, and remembers what pierces him.

Updike's examination of the mind in thought is saved from narcissism by his vivid re-creation of the work of the eyes and ears. His imagination is both auditory and visual and it misses nothing -- the way a motel owner holds a credit card ("people used to roll their own cigarettes in machines with just that gesture"), a daughter at bath time ("The child's silky body, where immersed, was of a graver tint than that of her skin smarting in air... . When her mother put a washrag to her face, blinding and scratching her, her fingers turned pale green with the pressure of her grip on the edge of the tub."), a carol singer ("When he hit a good 'oh!', standing beside him was like being inside a great transparent Christmas ball.") and sex -- both in the head and in the bed ("Through the warp and blur of alcohol the inner configurations of her cunt, the granular walls, the elusive slippery hooded central hardness, began to cut an image in his mind, and to give him a jeweller's intent, steady joy.").

Updike's sexual explicitness has been much commented on, but he is no Henry Miller, gleefully flinging filth at the bourgeoisie, no D.H. Lawrence transmuting sex into religion; Updike is as interested in how clouds form as what the naked human body looks like; he seeks to render all experiences in scrupulous specific detail. Perhaps it is his indefatigable search for the dazzling quiddity to be mined from the commonplace which leaves Updike somewhat breathless when his subject matter departs from the here-and-now. Under the heading "Far Out," this collection contains such curiosities as an account of St. Augustine's love for an unnamed woman, a tale of a burgeoning affair between an iguanodon and a brontosaurus and a literally microscopic examination of a terrible party. These are, if not failures exactly, disappointments in a body of work which promises and delivers satisfaction in abundance.

When the final story in this volume, "Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer," was published in 1975, Updike had 29 (more, more) years of writing ahead of him. Such is Updike's vivifying talent, that the reader closes this hefty volume greedy for the treasures to come. | January 2004


John Keenan is a journalist, living in Brighton, England. He is editor of the business travel magazine Meetings and Incentive Travel. His work has been published in The Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review, and other publications.