The Poorhouse Fair – 3/5 Stars
This is a reread for me separated by about 15 years or so. This is John Updike’s first novel, and feels like it in a lot of ways. It also feels like a kind of drawer novel that came out after finding some experience with short fiction and poetry. The novel is short, broken into three chapters with some small section breaks within it. It takes place over the course of a weekend in a “Poorhouse”, a state-run old folks’ home. This weekend marks an annual fair, where the local community will be invited to buy various odds and ends produced by the inhabitants of the home. So there’s a stirring kind of action happening.
Primarily we split our focus on two or three of the old men who live at the home. Hook is our lead, a 94 year old man who we learn feels pretty settled in his old age, it having been 1/3 of his life, where some of the other men have only recently become old. In addition, we spend a lot of time with the newly hired intendent of the home, who clearly views himself partially as a reformer, but also as a kind of warden. The tensions continually rise throughout the weekend, coming to a head in part because of the death of a stray cat whom many of the residents have befriended.
The novel is interesting because Updike’s narrative clearly finds sympathy and compassion with the residents but not with the newly hired intendent. It’s not pity, though, to be clear so while the youthful Updike (he would have been no more than 25 when this was written) clearly aligns the narrative against unearned authority, rather than with youth looking to move past older generations. The narrations in very entrenched within the story and can be dense at times, but then again I also read an old paperback edition from the 60s, so that might have condensed it for me a little too.
The Same Door – 4/5 Stars
|The early stories of John Updike tend to be split in a few ways, with a number of them being small town stories about young people, especially teens, dealing with feelings much larger than the agency and control they have over their world. He excels at these types of stories in this collection especially. The story “Friends from Philadelphia” has that funny kind of tension between what a teen wants to do and what their parents require of them, with the slight added air of dad-menace warning that you had better listen to him.
Another, “Ace in the Hole” – A proto-story more than anything else about an aging (and by this I mean in his early 20s) highschool basketball star who has unwittingly traded in his basketball shoes for a marriage and young baby. If this sounds a lot like Rabbit, Run, that’s because it is – even with Ace Anderson becoming simply Fred Anderson in local papers as his records are eclipsed by new local stars.
“Snowing in Greenwich Village” This is the first of the “Maples” stories, about a married couple who goes through the throes of falling in love, getting married, having children, slowly falling out of love, and then eventually, painfully having a divorce. The Maples are one of the several John Updike narratives that get revisited from time to time. The Rabbit books, the Bech books, and the Maples stories are the main three, but a few others here and there. It feels clear, but really only John Updike knows, that the Maples probably share a lot with Updike, in ways that it often feels like Harry Angstron (Rabbit) does not. They met in college, they are wasp-y, and they have that kind of young love that so many early novels and stories used to be like, when people got married so much younger than they do now, and have a handful of kids before their brains are even fully formed and they figure some things about themselves. In this story, they are young and in love, but also, the seeds are there for the eventual dissolution of their marriage. They are kind of bored with sleeping with each other, and other people seem as if not more interesting than each other.
Pigeon Feathers – 5/5 Stars
This next collection of stories were written around the same time as Rabbit, Run and published soon thereafter…
“The Persistence of Desire” A man visits a doctor because of a persistent tick in his eye (like a twitch, not an arachnid), and can’t really understand that it’s likely a stress reaction to his unhappiness and not a physical issue. But like a lot of American men, he uses physicality to fix an emotional issue. I mean American men will also use emotions to deal with physical issues too, but this is the first one.
“Wife-Wooing” – There’s a line in this story, one of the Maples stories, about how wife-wooing is harder than wooing a new person, for our protagonist, Richard Maple, a girl. That rings true, especially in light of where and how the marriage ends up going. The story is a kind of impressionistic exploration of that idea.
“Pigeon Feathers”. The title story of the collection and well, pigeon feathers are the very real consequences of an act of horrific violence as young David, a precociously intelligent boy living on a farm with his parents trying to understand life and aging, and having a mind amid a life that doesn’t seem to value almost any of these things. This discomfort and discomfiture leads him to take up his chore of ridding the barn of pigeons with a gleeful bloodlust that disturbs him.
“A&P” A story that I think is really great in a lot of ways and for some reason gets taught to teenagers. For one, it’s a little creepy for teachers to teach a story where a teen boy lusts after teen girls, after describing their bathing-suited bodies in detail, but it’s short and funny and well, teachers often confuse good stories with good stories to teach. The story involves a 19 year old cashier at a beachside town grocery store. He hates his job, he hates the old lady who’s always trying to catch him out, and he doesn’t hate but certainly doesn’t like his stickler of a manager. A couple of girl come in the from the beach and this is the 1950s and also they’re just too far from the beach to excuse it. He stares at them as he developed a lustful crush on one of them. When they finally arrive to the checkout lines, the manager spots them and scold them for their “improprieties”. In a fit of ill-thought bravado, the narrator quits and storms out of the job, but they’re already gone.
“Lifeguard” A divinity student uses his position as lifeguard to go on a long monolog about life in contemporary United States, sex and lust (which he reminds us is not forbidden to divinity students and that the churches have always been entangled with sex), and contemporary faith, but at least contemporary churchgoing.
Museums and Woman and Other Stories 4/5 stars
More stories !!
The Orphaned Swimming Pool – A house goes on the market after a family leaves town in the throes of a divorce. But their swimming pool, just sitting there in the backyard, becomes too tempting for the veritable carnival of people who adopt it. Of course the family has to return at some point. That’s how stories work.
Plumbing – Maples again – this time the family is looking at a new house and a visit from a plumbing frames their time together and larger senses of time through a meditative description of old plumbing joints.
Marching Through Boston – In this middle period Maples story, we see Richard partly at his worst. The family is going to a march on Boston led by the SLC and Martin Luther King Jr. Richard is resentful because he’s not really all that liberal but more so because his wife has just returned from a trip South where she already attended several marches there. In the war between who is actually a good person, this challenges him. His bad behavior centers mostly around playing at minstrel show imitations and antagonizing his wife and their daughter.
The Taste of Metal – Another Maple, and in this one we get to see thing fall apart in full swing and right before our eyes. They are leaving a party, one rife with subtexts and hidden meanings and Richard decides to drive, fairly drunk, against sense. Joan is in the passenger seat eyeing the young woman they’re driving home, knowing that whether she will begin an affair with Richard will have to at least be addressed.
Your Lover Just Called – Back to the Maples, in the age of resentment, as they play against each other in part playful, part intense antagonism. Anytime a phone rings, the other jokingly and not so jokingly accuses the other of receiving a call from their “lover” a real or imagined adversarial being in each other’s lives. This bleeds out from the phonecalls into those other areas of their lives. This is that space where two people are only not beginning to realize they should be looking at divorce, for everyone’s sakes.
Eros Rampant – This is the sort of meatiest of the Maples stories, if for you the meat means the rundown of infidelity and the kinds of neighborhood debauchery you want to see in an incisive Updike story or an Updike-like story. This is also a rundown of the neighbors too to boot.
Sublimating – This is a story where the Maples are simply resigned now, if not actually actively looking to make the changes they know they will need to. It’s a calm of a story.