The Magazine

Teller of Tales

The definitive Updike, in two volumes.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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In one of his most beautiful late stories, “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” a son revisits his mother’s house after her death. The story provides much information about how such houses were built in the 19th century, and Updike commented that it was “about things—how they mutely witness our flitting lives, and remain when the lives are over, still mute, still witnessing, still resolutely themselves and nothing else.” Bearing witness is one of the metaphors he uses to describe his writerly task: the celebration of things that cannot speak for themselves. In “Plumbing,” an old plumber explains why a pipe has to be replaced, telling his customer that, replaced, “It’ll outlast your time here.” The last paragraph gives us the plumber’s wide-open eyes, “in the unspeaking presence of corrosion and flow.” Its final sentence is its moral: “All around us we are outlasted.”

 "Plumbing” is one of the many stories Updike wrote that aren’t exactly “stories”; that is, they don’t have characters or much, if any, plot, but they unfold themselves as meditative, speculative improvisations, fueled by the elegant power of a writer’s sentences. Updike himself referred to this mode as “abstract personal,” adding that it was not a favorite of his critics. It first surfaces in a very early story, “Toward Evening,” where nothing happens except in the thoughts of a young married father who, after supper, looks out from his small apartment across the Hudson toward the Palisades, and remarks the nightly lighting of a Spry sign advertising vegetable shortening. At the story’s end, the Spry sign has provoked thoughts about the small cities surrounding it and the black river with its “uncreated if illegible stars.”

The story would be predictive of much future Updike, right down to his final tales. He made particular use of this abstract personal mode in stories he wrote in the early 1960s, featuring a man, his wife, and the “other woman” for whom he considers leaving his wife. “Leaves,” “The Stare,” “The Music School,” and “Harv is Plowing Now” are strong examples of this mode.

Updike once said that the book of his he liked best was Olinger Stories (1964), the collection of pieces about a young boy growing up (“Pigeon Feathers,” “Flight”), going away to college, coming home to visit (“The Happiest I’ve Been”), and becoming a married man living in Massachusetts who is called home by his father’s illness. Two portmanteau stories made up of incidents held together through poetic linkage—“The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island” and “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car”—are among the finest expressions of the “Pennsylvania thing” he had within him. These endlessly rereadable stories are told through a voice that is, by turns, generous, troubled, daring, guilty, and almost always humorous—humor being a quality that Updike plentifully exhibited in his fiction but that has not been enough remarked on or appreciated by his critics.

One of the challenges of short fiction is ending a story without making it too obviously a wink at the reader or a clever turn of phrase that fails to do justice to what has preceded it. Two of Updike’s later stories stand out as ones in which he has triumphantly solved this problem: The first is titled “Journey to the Dead,” and is about a woman, dying of a stroke, whom the male protagonist visits in the hospital. Fredericks, the man, had been a classics major in college and thinks about visitations to the dead in The Odyssey and Aeneid. Bidding the woman goodbye, he says, awkwardly and inadequately, “I’m afraid I have to, as they say, split.” She unsmilingly stares back at him, as he “promises insincerely to come again, and, like heroes before him, fled.” If it’s not heroic, neither is it to be mocked. 

The second ending is from the above-mentioned “Sandstone Farmhouse,” where the son, having disposed of his mother’s farm, feels “guilty, anxious, displaced. He had always wanted to be where the action was, and what action there was, it turned out, had been back there.” This formulation could serve as epigraph for all of Updike’s revisitations to the Pennsylvania thing.

Reading chronologically through the later stories makes us more aware of a man growing old, concerned, as the title of one of his stories suggests, with “personal archaeology”—the range of memory playing over the terrain traversed. In Updike’s final story, “The Full Glass,” a man brushes and flosses his teeth dutifully, prepares his daily batch of pills, and puts in some eye drops; as he does this, he likes to have a full glass of water ready to provide a “healthy swig” to wash the pills down.