The Maples Stories

John Updike’s 18 stories charting the marriage and divorce of Joan and Richard Maples.

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John Updike, who died at 76 this past January, has had more books published this year than many writers achieve in a lifetime. This spring, his last story collection, “My Father’s Tears,” followed his last poetry collection, “Endpoint.” Both feature elegiac explorations of aging and mortality that he was working on into his final illness.

The Maples Stories, by contrast, gathers together for the first time in hardcover all 18 stories that he wrote between 1956 and the mid-1980s about the strained marriage and protracted, painful divorce of Joan and Richard Maple. All but the last, “Grandparenting,” were collected in a 1979 paperback edition titled “Too Far To Go” that tied in with a television adaptation. Thirteen of the stories also appear sprinkled throughout the superb 2003 compendium, “The Early Stories: 1953-1975.”

Although there was no urgent need, it’s nice to have all of the Maples stories repackaged together in a handsome Everyman edition.

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These scenes from a marriage encapsulate what many associate with classic Updike: iconic tales such as “Your Lover Just Called” and “The Taste of Metal” set in wealthy New England coastal suburbs where the husband commutes to work while his well-educated, politically engaged wife stays home tending their children, who are largely offstage. Front and center are the neighborhood parties, “fishing” expeditions for the extramarital affairs that largely occupy the adults. It’s all described in luscious, luminous prose.

How have the stories aged? They are painstaking portraits of a bygone era – the 1960s and ’70s – yet, because of the particularity of Updike’s details, they are more than period pieces. Stories such as “Wife-Wooing” – in which Richard Maple, eating takeout burgers and fries in front of a fire with his young family, contemplates the effort it takes, seven years into his marriage, to court an exhausted, distracted wife – capture dynamics between couples that are as true today as when they were written.

That said, it should also be noted that readers are apt to find both Richard Maple’s and Updike’s attitude toward women dated and sexist. In “Wife-Wooing,” for example, he writes insultingly, “You serve me supper as a waitress – as less than a waitress, for I have known you.” His descriptions of a woman’s aging hands, so brutal in his last novel, “The Widows of Eastwick,” are no less caustic describing Joan’s hand, “distinctly thirtyish, dry and green-veined and rasped by detergents.”  And when, in “Gesturing,” Richard finally moves into a bachelor apartment in Boston, he’s in shock over having to prepare his own food and do his own laundry.

Yet one could argue that Updike is so unstintingly honest in his portrayal of Richard that he magnifies his male chauvinism. When Joan, goaded into infidelity, confesses to an affair in “Eros Rampant,” Richard is clearly more titillated than upset: “ ‘You whore,’ he breathes, enraptured.’”

However distasteful his characters’ behavior, one reads Updike for the elegant precision with which he captures what he called in his 1979 introduction “the seesaw of their erotic interest, [which] rarely balances.” He added, “The moral of these stories is that all blessings are mixed. Also, that people are incorrigibly themselves.”

In the very first Maple story, “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” written in 1956, the couple hosts a female friend in their new apartment. Joan, coming down with a cold, “cleared her throat, scraping Richard’s heart.” Just two years into their marriage, she can still have that effect on him. Yet when he walks their guest home, he’s already flirting with infidelity.

Even in their endless discussions about separating, the Maples call each other “Darley.” Joan says, “I hate your ego ... and our sex is lousy, but I’ve never been lonely with you.” Richard, with “his sealed heart,” proceeds inexorably toward divorce, freeing him to marry his mistress. His mood is of “purposeful desolation.”

When the Maples reappear with their new spouses nine years after their divorce for the birth of their first grandchild in “Grandparenting,” Richard, indeed incorrigibly himself, competitively sizes up his “insolently tall” son-in-law and Joan’s fastidious, uptight husband. Holding his newborn grandson for the first time, he can’t help noting that his body adheres to him “more weakly than the infants he had presumed to call his own.” It’s a telling observation, but Updike’s closing zinger is a prime example of what really separates him from the literary pack and makes these stories worth reading and rereading: “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.”

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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