I am making my way through John Updike's The Early Stories. The book has been patiently waiting its turn on my To Read book carousel, its very heft causing me to turn right by it several times in favor of something smaller, something less demanding of my fully engaged attention. Reading a writer like Updike, a writer for whom language is more than a transparent covering on the "reality" it evokes, always requires one's willing attention, or there's no point in reading him at all. To make your way through 103 stories and 828 pages of Updike, however, makes one hesitate before finally summoning the commitment to go ahead with it.
I have read many of these stories before, but Updike has re-arranged them in the way in which he presumably now wants them to be read, the arrangement that will convey most felicitously what they have to offer us. The fresh connections this arrangement makes between the stories, whether written as early as 1953 or as late as 1975, must surely also make them, if not more meaningful, at least meaningful in a different way than when they are read in isolation, or even in their original published context. Thus I do intend to read the book as it is presented to us, from first story to last.
However, I also intend to pause after reading each section or two (there are eight sections, each containing 10-15 stories) and discuss the stories assigned to these sections, perhaps as much for my own benefit in thinking through my response to Updike's writing as for the opportunity to share my responses in a blog post. Those not interested in Updike's fiction--and there are perfectly good reasons why one might not have had a positive response to Updike, on which more later--can of course simply skip these posts. However, I do hope that others wishing to know more about this writer, or to check his/her own responses with mine, might find something of value in this discussion and the ones to follow.
The first section of the book is dedicated to the "Olinger stories," written between 1954 and 1961 and clearly based on Updike's own youth in Shillington, Pennsylvania. I have never really thought of Updike as an autobiographical writer per se. Although much of his fiction is clearly anchored by his own experiences first in Pennysylvania and ultimately in Massachusetts, many of his books are not autobiographical at all, taking as their subjects characters completely unlike John Updike--The Coup, Roger's Version, The Witches of Eastwick, In the Beauty of the Lilies, the Bech books. Even Rabbit Angstrom is obviously not an autobiographical character, however much some of his responses to his situation and his experiences might have come from Updike's familiarity with his mileu and his background.
The Olinger stories, however, are relentlessly autobiographical, so much so that when taken together their value as literary art, as fictional creations with full aesthetic integrity, is somewhat less than I expected it to be. One thing that even this initial section of The Early Stories begins to demonstrate is the price to be paid by a writer determined to survive simply as a writer, to have a "career" in fiction writing and not to either martyr himself in his poverty or take up a supporting career as professor or editor. The consequence is that some of the work is written as work, stories written to pay the bills or keep one's presence up but not necessarily because they were otherwise stories that just had to be written. Several of the stories in this section seem to me to be of this kind, written to first establish Updike's presence and then to help the writer earn his keep. There's nothing morally objectionable about this, but stories like the first one, "You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You," a coming-of-age vignette similar to Joyce's "Araby," but much less accomplished, or "In Football Season," an equally slight reminiscence of high school football games, are perhaps interesting enough to read in charting the development of John Updike's career but surely won't stand the test of time as short stories.
As a whole, these stories revolve around the same set of characters, given different names in some of the stories, but clearly the same nevertheless: a young man with a tendency to brood and to speculate about what his life will be like, as well as with some latent talent as a writer or artist, his parents, the mother somewhat frustrated with her lot but also capable of enjoying life, a father stuck in a low-paying job as high school teacher and given to a fair amount of brooding of his own, which he hides in a facade of cheerfulness, sometimes one or more elderly grandparents, the boy's real connection to the past, the history of the community in which he lives. This is all clearly enough a version of John Updike's own family and their travails, of his own trajectory from small-town boy to aspiring writer. But the effort seems so intensely focused on recreating these circumstances and tracing that trajectory that one finishes these stories thinking more about John Updike's life and his desire to portray it in fiction than about the achievements of the stories in literary terms.
Probably the best-known story among the group of Olinger stories is "Pigeon Featherss," the title story of Updike's second collection, published in 1962. This is also a coming-of-age story (Updike seems fond of this conceit), in which the Updike character, in this case named David Kern, is seized with a kind of premature existential crisis. "Without warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you are drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt into your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called by any angel. . . ." No doubt this is as well one of the earliest stories in which religious faith becomes a foregrounded theme, a theme that has led many critics to label Updike in part a "religious" writer. David's crisis is resolved in the story's conclusion, when, after ridding the family's barn of a group of pesty pigeons, David looks at one of the dead pigeons and "lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a contolled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him." David buries the pigeons, and as he finishes "crusty coverings were lifted from him" and "he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever." One wants to think there is some irony in this, that it is not being suggested that the slaughter of "these worthless birds" (pigeon as Christ figure?) is not necessary to save David's soul, but I, for one, have to conclude that this revelation is meant to be taken precisely as such, the pleasing lyricism of the passage notwithstanding.
In my opinion, the two best stories in this section are "The Persistence of Desire" and "The Happiest I've Been." In the former, the Updike stand-in, here called "Clyde Behn," returns to Olinger after a number of years and meets a former girlfriend. There is clearly unfinished business between the two of them, although they both understand why their relationship had to end. The ex-girlfriend, it seems, is willing to betray her husband for a sexual encounter with Clyde and leaves Clyde with a note: "The glimpse, through the skin of paper, of Janet's old self quickened and sweetened his desire more than touching her had. He had tucked the note back into his shirt pocket and its stiffness there made a shield for his heart. In this armor he stepped into the familiar street. The maples, macadam, shadows, houses, cars were to his violated eyes as brilliant as a scene remembered: he became a child again in this town, where life was a distant adventure, a rumor, an always imminent joy." The tone of regret and sorrow for things passed that runs through all of these stories is perhaps most effectively sounded here, an effect Updike achieves entirely through the aptness of phrasing and the rythmic ease of his language. "The Happiest I've Been" is an equally quiet story in which the narrator ("John") is a college sophomore about to drive back to school with a local friend. Before leaving they stop off at a party where the narrator meets up with some old acquaintances and eventually winds up sitting in a kitchen with a girl he doesn't know well but with whom he has a tender moment nevertheless: "She drew my arm around her shoulders and folded my hand around her bare forearm, to warm it. The back of my thumb fitted against the curve of one breast. Her head went into the hollow where my arm and chest joined; she was terribly small, measured against your own body. Perhaps she weighed a hundred pounds." This is all that happens, but it makes the narrator "happy" that she "had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me," as does his friend, Neil, as the narrator later drives away from Olinger. (We have also learned that "after we arrived in Chicago I never saw him again either.")
The wistful quality that many of these stories seem to be after comes through most affectingly in these two stories because they're understated, don't try as hard as does even the staged epiphany in "Pigeon Feathers." The remaining Olinger stories perform variations on the themes of these two stories, to greater or lesser effect, but ultimately work, at best, to sketch out the overall portrayal of Olinger and its influence on David/Clyde/John Updike. In my view "The Persistence of Desire," "The Happiest I've Been," and perhaps "Pigeon Feathers" are the works that will continue to attract readers among this grouping of stories. (Also in my view, the essay-like "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island" and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car" just don't work at all.)
Throughout all of these stories, however, Updike's impressive prose style is in evidence, although it is here perhaps somewhat less florid, but also somewhat less assured, than it will later become. In addition to the passages I have already quoted, this paragraph, the opening paragraph of "In Football Season," shows Updike the pure stylist at his best:
Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn? As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words, and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seems to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum lifts toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold on the dark slop of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city.
Some readers find Updike's style excessive, too intoxicated with the description of things, but I find it irresistable, the style of a writer trying to discover in all good faith what words can really say.
In many ways, the real culmination of the Olinger stories is Updike's novel The Centaur (1963). Perhaps because it was Updike's immediate follow-up novel to Rabbit, Run, in my opinion it really did not then and to some extent still has not received the credit it is due. Containing essentially the same cast of characters, this novel really completes the portrayal of Olinger and its place in Updike's fiction, and is the most compelling portrait as well of Updike's father (or at least of his fictional transformation.) The novel additionally shows Updike beginning to depart from strict conventional realism, as it alternates the story of the father and the son with a depiction of the father as literally a centaur, the mythological creature who is half man and half graceful beast. It really is a completely successful novel, and it is to be hoped that in the future it acquires the many readers it deserves.