“It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you.” John Updike, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories.
Great writers are able to show their values and philosophies by creating imaginary worlds that feel so real, you are swallowed whole and resurface altered and grateful for the journey. Updike wrote about the concerns and passions of small town, Protestant America in the latter half of the twentieth century. He won the Pulitzer more than once. He was an art and literary critic. If you haven’t discovered John Updike, try his Rabbit, Run (1960). I also recommend reading the recent issue of The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 43, interview section. The interview was held in 1964 and gives a good sense about the man and his writing process while in his 30s.
Like Hemingway, I prefer Updike’s short stories. Last year I read My Father’s Tears, published posthumously. While the publication page asserted “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental” I don’t buy it for a minute. The narrator in My Father’s Tears was John Updike, recalling his life, his family, his wives, growing older, being old.
I associate John Updike with Daniel Day-Lewis. As artists, both men show characters that are so convincing, the line between real and fiction blurs. Updike placed great faith in the power of art in the written word. Art has the magical ability to teach us about life. Updike’s specialty elevated mundane details into beautiful revelations. As a result, these moments of life become beautiful offerings of humanity.
For instance, he used the metaphor of drinking water with the thirst for life in “The Full Glass.” The narrator recollected from his childhood the satisfaction gained by drinking from hoses, from town fountains, spigots, wells, tap water from his grandma’s house. How clever to create a world with this prosaic detail. He was a kid with the optimism and insatiable thirst for life. The locations in the town for drinking water was important because it personified the town as a character in the memory of the narrator. Water became the binding detail that reflected the town through the use of metaphor.
Another short story, the title piece of the collection, “My Father’s Tears,” the narrator reminisced about his life through a poignant moment. He stood on the train platform about to embark for college and shook hands with his father. The narrator had never seen his father cry. It was the grand gesture that spoke volumes to the son. Updike wrote about moments. Those moments that follow you around for the rest of your life.
I think authors who are considered great are put in anthologies because they become “the voice” of a particular era, war, gender, or ethnicity. Updike was the king of the American common man in the twentieth century. He opened the door to the past and presented an authentic realism. I love literary realism; that is why he is missed by me.
“I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.” John Updike.