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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Each one of John Updike's My Father's Tears and Other Stories makes the reader fully aware of the writer's sense of mortality. These stories come from the imagination and the history of an aging artist. My Father's Tears is not to be missed.

MY FATHER'S TEARS and Other Stories

By John Updike © 2009

Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 294 pp.

Reading Updike's short stories is a little like eating homemade fudge — even though you know you need self-discipline, or at the very least, to limit your consumption in a single sitting, you can't manage it.

Eighteen stories are in this collection, which compared with the total output of a writer who penned almost every imaginable form of literature including children's and drama, seems like not much after all. This group, varied though it is in subject and narrator, seems to have at least one common characteristic:each one makes the reader fully aware of the writer's sense of mortality. These stories come from the imagination and the history of an aging artist.

In one way, they might be considered old-fashioned. They make heavy and inventive and subtle use of metaphor and delicately precise diction. Despite Updike's long history with The New Yorker, each gem has a distinct structure that includes a real conclusion, unlike so much of contemporary short fiction.

Those conclusions vary in their efficacy, however. The title story, like most of the rest, has a melancholy and nostalgic tone, emphasized by the resonance of that title. It begins with the incident that caused its narrator to observe his father's tears, continues through most of the narrator's life to a place when he realizes that his own tears would be not just appropriate, but desirable, only to discover that, "My father's tears had used up mine." That final sentence seemed too mysterious, too unexplained.

The story called "Blue Light," in comparison, is as satisfactorily finished as a lapidary's agate, and as entrancing as the layers you can see in that gem.

Relationships are the material Updike moulds into these stories. They are relationships of love or its lack — in marriage, parenthood and childhood, with friends, acquaintances, enemies, and with each character's past. The past is ever with the characters and the reader. Irony reigns in all of them, but not at the expense of sentiment. Despite the often reprehensible conduct of the story's central characters, there are never apologies. Divorce is a part in a surprising number of them, and usually the reader cannot imagine any other outcome for the situation described, but sometimes it seems an oddly self-serving decision, with little or no hope of improving the emotional lot of those involved. Sometimes the split has happened before the events described, and sometimes is the outcome.

In spite of the careful architecture of these stories, their endings leave open passageways to the reader's imagination. You are aware that in some way, they might continue.

"The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe" reads like a philosophical dissertation on ontology. If that sounds daunting, it is instead dramatic. A writer of fiction who can take his reader into such psychological labyrinths while making incontrovertible connections with the sensibilities of his subject demonstrates the depth of his perceptions of human fears and faith — or its absence. Not many writers dare to tread such paths.

Nostalgia looms large in these stories with references to times before and after World War II and the Great Depression. However, there is nothing romanticized here, and the catalogue of details makes every scene and the entire ambience of each selection palpable. The story of the childhood of a boy called Toby could have been an exercise in total recall. The denouement is inevitable and sad. At the end, the reader might walk blindfold in the yard next to the house where Toby lived.

So-called "happy endings" do not seem to be part of Updike's view. Still, his people appear to be well able to learn life's bitter lessons and emerge without much bitterness, and that is perhaps one of the primary marks of his basic humanity. It seems to be evidence of a world-view that includes hope. There are some of the people, though, who make you wonder if they really have felt what has happened to them. You never are in doubt of how their creator regards them.

The diction is exactly what we are used to from this eminently literary writer. Precision, often foreign language phrases or parts of dialogue, most with no nod to the possible ignorance of the reader, complete explanations, provide a rare clarity not just of setting, but also the pains and confusions of the figures in the action, and invariably provide evidence of lessons the actors should have learned.

For lovers of literature and fiction, and of purposeful narrative, My Father's Tears is not to be missed.

Joan L. Cannon

© 2009 Joan L. Cannon for

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