“If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” Those are the last words of the last short story in John Updike’s just published final collection, My Father’s Tears, and it’s hard not to read them as a resounding coda to his remarkable career.
Updike, who died at age 76 this past January, elegantly conveyed, over the course of 50 years, in more than 50 volumes of stories, poems, novels, and essays, what it is to be an educated, thinking, feeling – and, finally, aging – northeastern American male in the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.
“The Full Glass,” like most of the preceding 17 stories in “My Father’s Tears,” is elegiac in tone. It is narrated by an old man who finds inordinate satisfaction in having a full glass of water on his sink-top, at the ready for his morning and evening “life-prolonging pills.” This leads him to search his nearly 80 years, “trying to locate in my life other moments of that full-glass feeling.”
He unearths several memories of disproportionate pleasure, including talking his way out of a traffic violation during an out-of-town tryst with a lover who “made my blood feel carbonated,” and his annual ritual of stringing Christmas lights up his flagpole to suggest an invisible tree.
“The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” one of several tales involving post-retirement foreign travel, also describes an unexpected source of pleasure. Martin Fairchild, thrown to the street when his wife’s purse is snatched in Seville, ends up feeling not more vulnerable, but more alive: “Why was this unlucky event – being mugged and injured in a foreign land – so pleasing to Fairchild? It was, he supposed, the element of contact. In his universe of accelerating expansion, he enjoyed less and less contact.”
The narrator of “The Full Glass,” like many of the quasi-autobiographical protagonists in Updike’s tales, grew up an only child in rural Pennsylvania, “a fruit of the Depression’s scant crop.” Several stories revisit the three-generation “demoralized household” in which the boy knows he is the “bright spot.”
As one of Updike’s alter egos notes, “I have never really left Pennsylvania ... it is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition.”
Superficially, it may seem that Updike has covered this terrain before – unfulfilled parents, aging grandparents, high school reunions, wives, lovers, and children forsaken in the suburban game of musical beds, disoriented American tourists. But Updike keeps it fresh, periodically checking in on the condition not just of the self he values but on racially mixed grandchildren and post-9/11 religious beliefs.
Interestingly, Updike chose to open his final collection with “Morocco,” a story written in 1979, some 20 years before the others. Also an elegiac memory piece, it recalls an air of menace that drew the narrator, his first wife, and their four young children together as they vacationed in Morocco and Paris in 1969. Addressing the children, now grown, Updike writes achingly, “We had achieved, in Morocco, maximum family compression, and could only henceforth disperse. Growing up, leaving home, watching your parents divorce – all, in the decade since, have happened. But on a radiant high platform of the Eiffel Tower I felt us still molded, it seemed, forever together.”
The title story builds on this theme. In it, the narrator recalls the only time he saw his father cry, at the Alton, Pa., train station as he headed back to college in Boston and the woman who would become his first wife. Updike beautifully captures the wider implications of this separation: “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. My life had come out of his, and now I was stealing away with it.”
The overarching theme of Updike’s last stories is the family diaspora that is a natural but painful passage of man – a dispersal whose final stage is death but whose most effective antidote is memory.
It is hard not to read this collection – as hyper-articulate and resonant as any he’s written, and to my taste, more convincing and evocative than his late novels – without a sense of loss. There is profound sadness in knowing there will be no further bulletins from what Updike, in a poem commemorating his 73rd birthday, called “A life poured into words.”