The Centaur 5/5
The Centaur is John Updike’s novel follow up to Rabbit, Run, and if you’ve read that novel, and any of the subsequent ones, you’d recognize just how much of a departure (in some ways) this novel is from those. But John Updike has always had some experimental elements in his fiction, even if it doesn’t permeate all of his fiction. In any given story collection, you’d find a few “out there” stories.
Taken purely on plot, this novel is not all that experimental. It’s told primarily by Peter Campbell, a young man in high school (plus a few years after), whose father is a long-term science teacher at the local high school. As happens with a lot of dads and sons, Peter is beginning to realize what kind of man his dad is. Not a bad man at all, but probably a disappointing one. If not disappointing, he’s at least unremarkable. Peter is old enough to realize that might be more damning than if he was particularly bad. In another short story similar in a lot of ways to these two characters, “The Lucid Eye in Silver Town” we find a young boy of 13, precocious and annoying, going to New York with his father to meet up with a successful uncle, only to have the son’s accidental careless cost the father a large chunk of money. The boys anger and frustration is balanced by the narrator who is much older, looking back, and finding more connection and sympathy to the father, than he felt as a boy.
But this novel has something else in store for us as well. In addition to being a relatively straightforward narrative about a father and son, the novel dips into a kind of magical realism or mythopoeia, where relationship between the father and son is recast as the myth of the centaur, Chiron. Chiron is wise and noble healer, who among things, trades his immortality to cast his lot with Prometheus (who for us, is Peter) and so the story becomes one of sacrifice, a father’s for his son’s future.
Of the Farm – 3/5 Stars
Of the Farm is John Updike’s fourth novel from 1964 and is a relatively complex, but straightforward novel about a 35 year old man visiting his old family farm with his second wife (he’s divorced) and his 11 year old step-son. The novel spends its whole, short length, mostly in short conversations with his new wife, step-son, and his mother, as the four of them are becoming more and more familiar with each other. This is difficult because it’s a story about dynamics, formed one way, being forced to shift and change to new circumstances. So many of John Updike’s stories involve this kind of tension, where something about a world, or the world, has significantly shifted under the feet of a character and there’s not the same scripts any more. This book is slight, but the writing is impeccable at times, but it reads like a longish short story, and not a novel.