My Father's Tears
 by John Updike

Penguin (Hamish Hamilton)
2009, hardback

John Updike  (1932-2009) was a prolific writer, he published 15 collections of short stories, 24 novels, including the famous ‘Rabbit’ series, children’s books, poetry collections, essays, memoirs and criticism as well as a play. Amongst his many awards were a Pulitzer Prize. He was a staff writer at the New Yorker.

"But the fact, discovered by two independent teams of researchers, seemed to be that deep space showed not only no relenting in the speed of the farthest galaxies but instead a detectable acceleration, so that an eventual dispersion of everything into absolute cold and darkness could be confidently predicted. We are riding an aimless explosion to nowhere. "

Reviewed by James Murray-White

This is a masterly collection of stories that explore growing old through the lenses of relationships, marriages, and the daily nitty gritty of life. They didn’t immediately leap out and grab me by the neck, but as I leisurely read the collection three times over a few months, I started to understand Updike the reflective revealer of experience and wisdom as he wove these stories looking back upon characters' rich lives.

He wrote them in his last few years, and it would be too easy to say he is all of the characters, and that they are thinly disguised elements of his well-lived and well-chronicled life. He is a better writer than that. A reader looking for Updike might do better by exploring his last collection of poetry, Endpoint, which was featured in the New Yorker in the months before and after his death.

The choice of title for this collection, My Father's Tears and other stories, doesn’t seem an easy fit for all of the collection, but the story itself, which contrasts the narrator’s parents with those of his ex-wife’s, interweaves time backwards and forwards and back again with wonderful storytelling. It concludes succinctly:
"I hung up and shared the news with Deb. She put her arms around me in the bed and told me, ‘cry’. Though I saw the opportunity, and the rightness of seizing it, I don’t believe I did. My father’s tears had used up mine."
What might be seen as the core story of the collection, and which has been highlighted as such by other reviews, is Varieties of Religious Experience, Updike’s literary response to the tragic events of 9/11. A father and grandfather, Dan Kellogg, happens to be in New York on that day, visiting his family, and has a direct view of one of the planes hitting the tower. Other narratives of the same event blend through the 30-page story – an office worker in the tower has a last phone call with his wife; two of the terrorists drink in a bar and wait for their call to arms, and a woman on board one of the hijacked planes is witness to the panic and atrocity close up. Dan Kellogg is forced to deal with the unfolding events and his difficult relationship with his family through the lens of his own faith, and Updike sets this up as the tension of the story, set against the straight telling of the real life events. It is an uneasy piece, given that it reads almost like one of the media stories of that day, into which Updike has blended fiction.

Other stories delve into quirky relationships that may or may not be happy and fulfilled. In German Lessons, for example, Ed has moved to a new town for a while and his marriage and business are put on hold. While pondering what to do, he enrolls on a language course, run by the charismatically Teutonic Hedwig Mueller, who describes herself as a "Hitler bitch", and drifts into a relationship with a fellow student:
"Ed found German disagreeable and opaque – its closeness to English addled his mind. He might have quit but for Andrea."
Ed gets what he can out of his time with her and the crazy company they mix in, and then drifts back to his wife. He is a cold creature, utterly lost in 1960s America, and I think Updike mockingly places him at the end on holiday in Germany, allowing his character such small, insubstantial memories of a life not much lived.

Adultery in a key theme running throughout many of the stories, including Delicate Wives and Free, where male protagonists burn up with memories of extra-marital affairs and try desperately to resurrect them. Updike’s men do often seem to hark back to their earlier years of virility and stealth, and yet for Les in Delicate Wives the affair was recent, and he becomes blinded by it:
"This was….the intimacy he had coveted, legitimately his at last; but he felt befouled by things of the body and wanted merely to turn away, while knowing he could not."
As well as affairs outside marriage and flirtatious relationships before marriage, and the early fumblings of youth, as retold seductively at a school reunion some 50 years later in The Walk with Elizanne, Updike firms in upon the intricacies of intimacy, as his characters, such as the aging male character known as Fairchild in The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe find ways to live together and accept each other's foibles.

After they are robbed on holiday in Spain, he yells at his wife: "Will you stop focusing on my blood? You knew when you married me I had blood." This heat of the moment exchange, coming from the lips of a very placid man firmly down the road of a contemplative retirement, set upon reaching a companionable and yet largely unspoken understanding with his wife, seems to somehow underpin all the characters across the 18 stories. Indeed, the narrator gently continues, before Fairchild has an unpleasant encounter with a door, that: "she was teaching him, this late in his life, feminist inclusiveness."

Upon first reading, the only story which didn’t seem to sit amongst the others is the opener, Morocco. Eventually this saga of hapless misfortune suffered by an American family with young kids traipsing around this utterly foreign place, made sense to me. Whether many thousands of miles away from home, or in the place we grew up, and might keep returning to, we might, as Updike’s characters all do, experience the same quasi-cultural misunderstandings, fears, and motivations.

Many of the characters throughout the book feel the call of return to something or someplace past, to try and understand something, or join up the dots of long lives drawing to conclusions. I’m not so familiar with the parts of America where many of the stories are set – Boston, Pennsylvania and Updike’s own Massachusetts, and while they have a flavour of the local community and the land – Personal Archaeology is the only story which is very firmly rooted in one person's particular small estate, with tendrils of history stretching back across it; this in no way hampers the reading of them.

Updike, intentionally or otherwise, is able to really create an everyman in each one of his protagonists. They are by and large male, this is clearly his strength and where he succeeds, and he ploughs up traits and flaws, and several strengths as well, that many readers will identify with. I would say, by way of conclusion, that in this glorious collection, Updike has left us with not so much a manual by which to live life, but stories which show us how to reflect upon life from the vantage point of maturity.

Read the title story from this collection in The New Yorker

James Murray-White is a writer and environmental media maker based in Bristol, UK. Reading this collection has coincided with discovering several white hairs in a once ginger beard, and the 2 experiences together have brought on a period of quiet reflection.

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