Book Review: My Fathers Tears and Other Stories, by John Updike

Published 4:11 pm Friday, November 27, 2009

There are readers who love short stories for their diversity, for the succinctness of plots as well as for the fact that reading them doesnt require an open-ended commitment of time.

And then there are those who dislike them for the very same reasons. These readers want to walk to the altar with a book, have its characters and their stories wedded to their literary souls. John Updikes The Maples Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009) will satisfy both sorts of readers.

The stories span publication dates from 1956 to 1976, all of them centering on Richard and Joan Maples, from the early years of their marriage until, years later, divorced, they are brought together again for the birth of their first grandchild.

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The stories, although coming upon the Maples at different times in their lives, nevertheless, flow with the continuity of a novel. By the last page of this collection there is the feeling of having consumed a novel three times as long as this slim volume.

Updikes masterful providing of small details that illuminate characters and situations helps; we really feel we know Richard and Joan so well that their heartbreaks become our own.

In the books foreword, Updike promises a book that will trace the decline and fall of a marriage [and] also illumine a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared. The book does just that, taking the couple through the sedate 50s and the tumultuous 60s and further, into the chaos of their own lives as the relationship disintegrates.

It is easy to see the artistic training Updike received in descriptions so evocative one wants to stop and reread them. A famished sun was nibbling through the overcast, he writes. And, in the beautifully structured Twin Beds in Rome, of the Maples he writes that [t]heir marriage had let go like an overgrown vine whose half-hidden stem has been slashed in the dawn by an ancient gardener.

In Marching Through Boston Joan drags a half-sick Richard to a Civil Rights march, giving him fodder for a hilarious scene of loud self-pity and unceasing criticism made more humorous by the no-nonsense reaction of his wife and the bewilderment of his young children.

And the brilliant and haunting story, Separating, tells of the long-delayed, gentle coming-apart of their lives years later as Richard batten[s] down the house against his absence, replacing screens and sash cords, hinges and latches a Houdini making things snug before his escape. Like life itself, this story moves about among moments funny and happy and draining until one word spoken by a distraught son brings tears to the eyes.

Updike was a master of using the most gloriously appropriate words to describe scenes so real that they resonate as if they were memories rather than just words from the authors imagination.

The characters can be exasperatingly immoral and callous to one another. It is a testament to Updikes gift that one tolerates and maybe even loves them all the same, as if they were siblings one cannot understand but accepts because, well, thats just the way they are.

The moral of these stories, Updike writes in the foreword, is that all blessings are mixed. In such a way do these stories delight and wound at the same time. By books end the Maples have become like people you know or, perhaps, because Updike was such an accomplished writer, more real even than the people you know.

The book is available at Lanier Library, 72 Chestnut St. Tryon. Library hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon. 1 to 4 p.m.