With the posthumous publication of My Father's Tears, we may at last be able to examine John Updike's full corpus of work. I wouldn't bet on it though. Updike wrote novels and short stories with the same frequency most of us take meals. For Updike, essays, criticism, and poems were mere snacks between meals, and who knows what he was up to at breakfast and supper? As many books as he published in his lifetime – more than 60 – you can't help but suspect there's more still to come.
Unsurprisingly, the tone of this latest collection is autumnal. Many of the stories feature protagonists in the midst of life's final furlong, glancing over their shoulder at middle age, and further back still, to youth. Where the cast of characters is younger, middle-aged, invariably there is still some contemplation of mortality, whether through an imagining of the final moments in the lives of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks or through reckonings with aging and dying parents. This being Updike, there is also a good deal of marital strife and infidelity – although "strife" may not be the ideal word, since Updike's husbands replace wives with all the moral recompense exerted in switching the office calendar.
While Updike has written several masterpieces (most notably, the Rabbit books), whether you consider him a virtuoso storyteller or a brilliant technician depends, I expect, on the measure of sympathy his work elicits in you. For me, he's a difficult writer to warm to, in part because his skill and erudition allow so little participation from the reader. Reading Updike offers the literary equivalent of watching a tightrope artist who's not only congenitally unable to fall but incapable of taking a false step. Sure, you admire his talent, but the essential elements of danger and surprise are strangely absent. At times, you feel he barely requires an audience.
And yet ... the title story, "My Father's Tears," is brilliant and moving, flat-out humbling to the mere critic. Stripped to its bones, the story details a man's relationship with his father, with his father-in-law, and with the shifting emotional landscape between two imperfectly joined families. The story only runs 20 pages – it's a master class in narrative concision – but it serves as a reminder that Updike really could conjure anything through words – even human empathy.
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