The two middle sections in John Updike's The Early Stories, "Family Life" and "The Two Iseults" offer a grab-bag assortment of stories united by the shared subjects of family and/or marriage, the latter increasingly portrayed as a locus of dissatisfaction and betrayal, of real but fleeting pleasures and of dashed hopes. There are two more Maple stories, "Eros Rampant" and "Sublimating," which cast these themes in the starkest relief, but most of the other stories as well work, to the extent they do work, to sketch a collective image of midcentury family life in suburban America.
Perhaps the most representative stories in this middle part of the book are two that serve as bookends of a sort for the two sections, "The Day of the Dying Rabbit" and "I Will not let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me." The first simply depicts a family vacation in a "five-room shack" to which the family retreats every summer, this one ultimately memorable for the incident named in the title (the family cat brings in a baby rabbit that finally can't be saved), but it in turn only serves to fix in place this particular vacation as a kind of emblem of the quiet joys of family life. The father and narrator, a photographer, wonders aloud: "What was it in the next twenty-four hours that slowly flooded me, that makes me want to get the day on some kind of film?" He answers his own question at the end of the story, as the narrator and his son are paddling their way across a pond back to the shack, about to strike land: "The days since have been merely happy days. This day was singular in its, let's say tone, its silver-bromide clarity. Between the cat's generous intentions and my son's lovingly calm warning, the dying rabbit sank like film in the developing pan, and preserved us all." The story works because it is fully dramatized (unlike some other other stories in these sections) and because it works out its structural metaphor (story as photo) with a satisfying aesthetic logic, allowing the story to avoid sentimentality. The dying rabbit introduces an element of tragedy into the "happy days" of family life, but, like the day itself, the rabbit's very suffering gets preserved as a kind of testimonial to all of life's realities.
"I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me" is an equally simple but amply realized story that focuses on a farewell party being held for a couple about to move from their Connecticut suburb to Texas. In this awkward transition period, "The familiar lulling noises--car horn and dog bark, the late commuter train's slither and the main drag's murmur--had become irritants, the town had unravelled into tugging threads of love. Departure rehearses death." At the party, the husband dances with a woman the story clearly intimates is a former adulterous lover, her stony indifference to him now both a painful reminder of what they once meant to each other and a telling sign (to readers) of the malaise into which the husband and wife have fallen and from which they are fleeing. The story's closing dialogue captures this fatigue quite nicely:
Safely on the road, Lou asked, "Did Maggie kiss you goodbye?"
"No. She was quite unfriendly."
"Why shouldn't she be?"
"No reason. She should be. She should be awful and she was." He was going to agree, agree, all the way to Texas.
"She kissed me, Lou said.
"When you were in the bathroom."
"Where did she kiss you?"
"I was standing in the foyer waiting for you to get done admiring yourself or whatever you were doing. She swooped out of the living room."
"I mean where on you?"
"On the mouth."
"Very. I didn't know how to respond. I'd never been kissed like that, by another woman."
"Did you respond?"
"Well, a little. It happened so quickly."
He must not appear too interested, or even to gloat. "Well," Tom said, "she may have been drunk."
"Or else very tired," said Lou, "like the rest of us."
Unfortunately, many of the other stories in these two sections are very slight and expose some of Updike's weaknesses as a writer. Too often he relies on lyricism to raise his subjects to a level of profundity they just can't reach on their own, as in "The Morning," literally a story about mornings: "At moments his dull attention caught, like a slack sail idly filling, a breath, from this multifaced horizon, of the hope that set in motion and sustained so many industrialized efforts, so much commercial traffic, such ingenious cross-fertilization of profit, such energetic devotion to the metamorphosis of minerals, the transport of goods. . . ." The same lyricism that breathes life into Updike's characters and their situations in his best stories here just goes blowing off into nowhere.
And too many of the stories are really just excuses for rather cloying reflections on the various aspects of family life. Among these would be "The Family Meadow" (you can guess its subject), "Plumbing," "The Orphaned Swimming Pool," "Son," "Daughter, Last Glimpses of," "Solitaire," and "Leaves." Other stories--"How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time," The Music School," "Museums and Women," "Four Sides of One Story"--are "experiments" in chronology or perspective or presentation as alternatives to scenic or episodic realism, but in my view they only suggest that Updike is much more skilled at this kind of realism. One understands why a writer like Updike would attempt such experiments--for a little variety, if nothing else--but most of these stories seem to me, at least, more a consequence of the need to keep churning out short stories than a real interest in literary experimentation.
It must also be said that in some of Udike's fiction the overall characterization of women can be unpleasant, bordering on the misogynistic. In "The Stare," a woman initially defined by her "blunt and elusive" demeanor is further described in this way: "In the months that unfolded from this, it had been his pleasure to see her stare relax. Her body gathered softness under his; late one night, after yet another party, his wife, lying beside him in the pre-dawn darkness of her ignorance, had remarked with the cool, fair appraisal of a rival woman, how beautiful she--she, the other--had become, and he had felt, half dreaming in the warm bed he had betrayed, justified. Her laugh no longer flashed out so hungrily and her eyes, brimming with the secret he and she had made, deepened and seemed to rejoin the girlishness that had lingered in the other features of her face. Seeing her across a room standing swathed in the beauty he had given her, he felt a creator's, a father's pride." The masculine vainglory here is pretty unattractive, and although the exposure of such male conceit seems built into Updike's project as a writer, there are times when one wonders whether some authorial condescension isn't seeping through, nevertheless.