Cutting the Power
Read retrospectively, then, My Father’s Tears embodies a grave sort of authority, although the stories themselves, though ruminative in tone, are not lugubrious. This is, in part, because of Updike’s old habit of focusing in great detail on very small things, so that the symbols of death take on more force than the impending death itself.
“Personal Archaeology”, for example, tells of an elderly landowner, Craig Martin, who uncovers strata of forgotten household accoutrements: “his grandfather’s Fraktur-inscribed shaving mug; a dented copper ashtray little Craig had often watched his father crush out the stubs of Old Gold cigarettes in; a pair of brass candlesticks, like erect twists of rope…”
At the story’s end, Craig tells of coming across “half-buried golf balls, their lower sides beginning to rot. He remembered how, when first moving to this place, and still hopeful for his game, he would stand on the edge of the lawn and hit a few old balls – never more, thriftily, than three at a time – into the woods down below. They seemed to soar forever before disappearing into the trees.”
The way things fade away and rot on their own, independent of the observer, is one of the themes of My Father’s Tears, as in the story “Free”, in which the main character, Henry, remembers his former mistress Leila, and how she had “abruptly stripped, one sunny but chill October day, and executed a perfect jackknife – her bottom a sudden white heart, split down the middle, in the center of his vision – into the lake, off the not yet disassembled dock and float. She surfaced with her head as small and soaked as an otter’s, her eyelids fluttering, and her mouth exclaiming, “Woooh!”
Many years later, “freed” by his wife’s death, Henry visits Leila, and discovers that not only had the years “redistributed her weight toward the middle and loosened the flesh of her brown arms,” but that she had “become vulgar, in the way of a woman with not enough to do but think about her body and her means.” So her problem, apparently, is not only that she is sagging, but that she’s trying to do something about it. Henry, accordingly, decides against resuming the old affair, but (to his credit and Updike’s) not without at least acknowledging “her small serious mouth, its upper lip weathered to a comb of small creases, and her lovely eyes, gleaming like jewels in crumpled paper…”
Updike, who was not an inexplicable genius like, say, Haruki Murakami, but rather an entirely explicable one, always seems to get the little things right. An Updike-like figure named David Kern gets hopelessly lost in the exurbs on the way to a reunion with some old high-school classmates (including, naturally, a decrepit old love), and finds that “the highway surroundings were thinning into countryside – distant isolated house windows, darkened low stores for carpeting and auto parts. He wanted to scream.”
The best story in this collection, “The Walk With Elizanne”, is, yet again, a reminiscence of a long-ago love affair, and also centers on David Kern. In this case, the affair consisted of a couple of innocent kisses between David and a high-school classmate, never to be repeated. Between kisses, “they stared at one another, her black eyes button-bright in the sodium streetlight, amid the restless faint shadows of the half-brown big sycamore leaves.”
But after the second kiss, they back off, thinking, wrongly as it turns out, that this is merely the beginning of a long-term relationship. Anyone who has ever missed a romantic or sexual opportunity and come to regret it later (which is to say, anyone breathing) knows that there are few misconceptions about life more irredeemable or heartbreaking than this one, a version of the words with which this story ends: “We’ll have plenty of time.”
Updike took full advantage of his own limited time, and managed to write memorably about all of life’s memorable moments except, of course, for the moment of his own death. In fact, halfway through this volume, remembering reading that account of Updike’s childhood habit, I developed an image in my own head of a Christmas tree in which the ornaments have been “hung” in bare air before the tree that connects them had been completely drawn. A few decorations, accordingly, were left floating, and this sense of incompleteness – that Updike’s grand life project, whatever its shortcomings, would be forever unfinished – began to nag at me as the pages in the volume dwindled down to the final few.
What, specifically, was bothering me? Perhaps it was that, however understandably, Updike was never able to describe his own death in the same manner that he had described everything else in his life.
But then, by some startling synchronicity, I came across this passage in the very last piece of this very last collection of his short stories, just a couple of pages from the end:
“Another curious habit of mine can be observed only in December, when, in the mid-sized sea-view Cape Ann colonial the wife and I moved to thirty years ago, I run up on the flagpole five strands of Christmas lights, forming a tent-shape that at night strongly suggests the festoons on an invisible tree. I have rigged two extension cords to connect with an outside spotlight so the illusion can be controlled from an inside switch. Before heading up to the bedroom … I switch it off. I could do it without a glance outdoors but in fact I move to the nearby window with my arm extended, my fingers on the switch, so that I can see the lights go out.
In one nanosecond, the drooping strands are burning bright, casting their image of a Christmas tree out into the world, and in the next, so quick that there seems no time at all while the signal travels along the wires from the switch, the colored, candle-flamed-shaped bulbs – red, orange, green, blue, white – are doused … the lights are there, imprinting the dark with holiday cheer, and then they are not.”
And then he was not. Ever the completist, Updike had managed to come full circle and to finish his life-long project of drawing, and connecting, the things of his world. And then, like the master performer that he was, he turned off the lights and disappeared.