My Father's Tears and Other Stories


Thirty pages into Nicholson Baker's U and I, a pungent, hilarious account of his obsession with John Updike, Baker drops the bomb: He's read "most or all" of just eight Updike books, leaving 22 of which he's read anywhere from five pages to "more than half." It's a risky admission, and Baker is ready with a prolepsis: "This man, you say, is parading his ignorance!... But this very spottiness of coverage is...one of the most important features of the thinking we do about living writers." Had he read all of Updike, the better to inform his essay, " multiplicity of examples would compete to illustrate a single point, in place of the one example th...



"The Walk with Elizanne" introduces the theme of senescence in the setting where Americans are most likely to struggle with it: a high school class reunion. In this case, it's a golden 50th. The story begins with David Kern, who also makes an appearance in "The Road Home" (published in The New Yorker in 2005 under the title "The Roads of Home"), visiting "the sick class member, Mamie Kauffman, in the hospital room where she has lain for six weeks, her bones too riddled with cancer for her to walk."

Mamie Kauffman isn't the focus of the story. That honor goes to the titular Elizanne, David Kern having been her first kiss -- he comes to remember this as an almost mystical encounter. But it is in David's meeting with Mamie that Updike shows the reach of his empathy and imagination:

Mamie tried to tell them about her suffering. "At times I've felt a little impatient with the Lord, but then I'm ashamed of myself. He doesn't give you more than He gives you strength to bear."

In theistic Pennsylvania, David realized, people developed philosophies. Where he lived now, an unresisted atheism left people to suffer with the mute, recessive stoicism of animals. The more intelligent they were, the less they had to say in extremis.


This brief passage tells us nothing about Updike's struggle with imminent death, but it reminds us that he found nothing to sneer at in the average person's emotional defenses. It seems that he admired, even envied them. This ability to describe the unglamorous without condescension or pity is part of what makes Updike so readable, and it's worth emphasizing that he retained this ability at an age when many surrender to bitterness and cynicism. There is a powerful undercurrent of gratitude running through these stories, as though observing and recording the most humble lives had been a great privilege.

This is not to say the stories are cheerful. Physical and moral frailty are inescapable themes. In "Free," a man finds himself liberated by his wife's death to resume an old affair, but time has changed him and his lover: "Had she become one of those spoiled, much-married women who say whatever rude sharp thing comes to them, take it or leave it, as if sassy were cute?" His thoughts return to "a kind of glazed calm" that overcame him "when would take a sudden downward turn, or during those endless last nights when there was nothing for him to do but stay awake, hold her hand, and feed her morphine and ice chips." Eventually he retreats to "the repose he found in imagining her still with him." Another man, in "Personal Archaeology," visits a "corpulent golfing buddy" lying moribund, post–cardiac arrest, in a hospital:

 

His chest moved up and down with a mechanical regularity recorded by hopping green lines on a monitor on the wall: a TV show, Al's Last Hours. It was engrossing, though the plot was thin, those lines hopping on and on in a luminous sherbet green.


A strikingly similar observation (it's funny, but one hesitates to call it a gag) appears in Christopher Buckley's Losing Mum and Pup. It's a small coincidence, but suggestive of how often Updike put these near-universal experiences into words that seem not so much apt as inevitable. The tiniest things receive Updike's careful attention. When "nts make mounds like coffee grounds between the bricks," there is not only the vivid simile but also...



pproaching eighty" who years ago left an insurance for a job refinishing floors: "Balancing in a cro...



April 17: "In less than three years, both GM and Chrysler would be bankrupt, and a resurgent Ford would wow Wall Street..."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

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