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Updike's Joyous, Touching Final Story Collection

John Updike, who died this past January, stood like a prodigious mountain among late 20th century men of letters. The winner of the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes, he wrote over 60 books (25 novels of which were novels) and contributed more than 800 articles to The New Yorker.

Updike's works are famous for being full of regular guys who rode the post-war boom to prosperity. The most well-known is Rabbit Angstrom, the former high-school sports star of Rabbit, Run, whose adulthood never quite matched the glory days of his youth. Like Rabbit, Updike's characters are often confused by their abundance, lacking in wisdom and spiritually unprepared for hardship. It's as if the author spent his life studying the anthropology of the American suburban male. But Updike confronts these often well-off, occasionally small-minded folk with the forgiving spirituality of Emerson, who believed that a person's greatest possible achievement was to be true to himself. So even as he examines his characters deeply, Updike never blames them for being what they are.

Updike tended to let his characters age with him, and his final short story collection, My Father's Tears, is no exception. "[T]he class beauties have gone to fat or bony or cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead," he writes in the title story.

Yet sometimes these elderly folk refind bits of their youth. "A Walk with Elizanne" starts with a high-school class's 50th reunion and ends with two classmates remembering a romantic evening when they were teens: "[H]e kissed her again, entering that warm still point around which the universe wheeled, its load of stars not yet visible, the sky still blue above the street-lights."

Updike's characters, often the most blessed scions of the mid-20th century, are frequently unprepared for their impending deaths, and many of these stories can be read as meditations on varying degrees of spiritual preparedness. It's as if Updike, who was sometimes a bit tight-lipped about his Christianity, is finally showing us his hand and saying, "yes, although I've spent my life telling stories about confused, materialistic people, I've done so precisely because there's more to life than materialism and confusion."

There's plenty here for longtime fans. Olinger, the post-industrial Pennsylvania town that appears in many of his books, is again prominent, and Updike's trademark wandering sentences, which, like Wordsworth's poetry, seem to go in two directions at once, are everywhere. But My Father's Tears also has a quality, sometimes found in final books, of being filled with light and wonderment. It's not only a fitting final book, but a joyous one.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Maury
Laurel Maury reviews graphic novels, fiction and poetry for The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and reports on comics for Publishers Weekly Comics Week. A comic book fan as a child, she rediscovered the form after receiving her MFA from Columbia University. She's worked as a poetry reader at The Missouri Review and The Paris Review and in editorial at The New Yorker. She knits and roller-blades in her spare time and lives in New York City.
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