In contrast to the two previous sections of the book, there are in the final two sections of John Updike's The Early Stories, "Far Out" and "The Single Life," many very good short stories, perhaps a couple of great ones. It is a pity, however, that these stories are reserved for the concluding pages, as some readers may have already given up on reading the whole book because of the lesser work to be found in its middle sections and will miss out on some of Updike's more satisfying work in the short story form.
"The Astronomer" is one of Updike's better explicitly "religious" stories, relating, in an efficiently compressed way, a brief episode dramatizing the not-so-disaparate-after-all views of the scientist and the theologian. "The Witnesses" and "A Constellation of Events" present the adultery story in which Updike so frequently specializes from perspectives different than the usual, the latter focusing on the woman's point of view for a change. "Ethiopia" and "I am Dying, Egypt, Dying" are stories of Americans visiting Africa, and are worth reading for the insight they provide into the American response to its "natives." "The Bulgarian Poetess" is the first of the Henry Bech stories, but, although a perfectly good story, it probably doesn't really belong in this collection. "Separating" and "Gesturing" more or less bring the saga of the unsuccessful Maple marriage to its conclusion.
"Transaction" is the longish but suprisingly compelling story of an evening's encounter between a "man of forty" and a prostitute. It proves to be an unexpectedly profound experience for the man of forty, as "Always, until now, [sex] had been too much, bigger than all systems, an empyrean as absolute as those first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss as dense as an ingot of gold. Now, at last, in the prime of life, he saw through it, into the spaces between the stars." "Problems" is one of Updike's most successful formal experiments, a brief story of, again, adultery, told entirely in the form of a mathematics test.
In my view, the two best stories in the final sections, both perhaps among Updike's very best, are "The Hermit" and "Killing." The first very quietly tells the story of a man who, in the gradual dissatisfaction he has come to feel for his life, finds an old shack in a deserted track of woods and withdraws into solitude. As much as he wants to escape from the troubles and frustrations of the world he's left behind, however, the story depicts the ultimate impossibility of doing so. Updike establishes a kind of empathy with this character (authorial empathy) that I, at least, found rather surprising. "Killing" relates the story of a daughter coming to terms with the death of her invalid father, which she herself has had to oversee, and it does so very effectively indeed.
My final judgment of this book is that, although it contains numerous very good stories, stories on which Updike's ultimate reputation will certainly in part be assessed, as a book it is not a very satisfactory presentation of Updike's skills. Far too many of the stories are throw-aways (the second half of "Far Out," for example, consists of a series of overly cute exercises in whimsy that are, frankly, not worth the bother), and the order Updike has given them doesn't particularly do them credit or force us to consider him as a writer of short fiction in any new and more illuminating light. It is a book that probably ought to exist (as a convenience for scholars and critics, perhaps), but is not something that even Updike's fans need to read with any great urgency. Updike's talents as a writer of stories will be much better served when a "Selected Stories" ulimately appears, one that would include probably only a third to a half of the stories to be found in The Early Stories, 1953 -1975.
If anything, the casual reader is likely to find the book frustrating if not counterproductive as a way of sampling Updike's shorter fiction. I myself still think that Updike has a lot to offer as a stylist, and even occasionally as a writer willing to stretch the limits of form in fiction (although this he does more satisfactorily in the novels, novels such as The Centaur or The Coup, Roger's Version or Brazil). There's no doubt, however, that he can also belabor certain subjects beyond their aesthetic usefulness, and that a long career spent actually earning a living as a writer of fiction has resulted in a fair number of short stories that seem motivated primarily by the need to keep churning them out. This latter problem, on the other hand, is one most writers would gladly welcome if it meant being able to also produce fiction of higher quality and care through the literary livelihood thus provided. John Updike is certainly in the final analysis a writer who has produced such fiction, even if one does have to pick and choose when surveying his very large body of work.