A review of My Father’s Tears and Other Stories by John Updike

Reviewed by Paul Kane

My Father’s Tears and Other Stories
By John Updike
Hamish Hamilton
2 July 2009, ISBN-13: 978-0241144596, Hardcover: 304 pages

This superlative collection of stories underlines just how great a loss the late John Updike (1932-2009) was to the world of literature, our world.

In this volume, as before, his imagination is fired by science, religion and philosophy, but his main themes still are the old staples: the relation between men and women, and between the generations.

‘Free’ is a story about a love that is unobtrusive, always there yet invisible like air. A man cheats on his sometimes rather dull wife, a regular affair. Yet when his wife dies he finds that the liaison doesn’t have quite the same thrill. He discovers a need to be alone, in familiar surroundings:

To the repose he found in imagining her still with him. Since her death she was wrapped around him like a shroud of gold and silver thread.

‘Delicate Wives’ is another meditation on adultery and its concomitant entanglements, betrayals, obligations and intimacies. Indeed, for an Updike protagonist an affair, or the prospect of one, is a typical predicament.

‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ is an unusual story in that it centres on a historical public event – the occurrences of 9/11 – rather than a closely observed human relationship. As the title partly indicates, we see matters unfold from multiple points of view, from the viewpoints of those who died on that day, their loved ones, the terrorists who carried out their heinous acts and those who witnessed them. It seems that God is implicated, always. For one, the sight of the fall of one of the twin towers involves a loss of faith, as his eye is drawn towards:

… its telescoping collapse, in itself a sight of some beauty, like the colour-enhanced stellar bloom of photographed supernovae, only unfolding not in aeons but in seconds …

It is a vision that we can all perhaps still picture in our minds.

The title story, ‘My Father’s Tears’, reads like episodes from a novel (or life), a composite of details from a larger canvas. The title carries a double meaning: there are the tears, an expression of love, which your father cries for you; and there are the tears that you cry (or should cry) for him, and which therefore are in a sense his.

My favourite story was ‘The Apparition’; it is about lust in old age and the futility of tourism to properly grasp what is real; the false notion that one can escape one’s own culture, its beliefs and conceptions. The story includes this beautiful description of a Hindu temple ritual or a tourist turn, or maybe a bit of both:

Wanting to feel an elephant’s blessing as she felt it, he submitted to one, for the price of a pink ten-rupee note bearing the image of Gandhi, and did feel, on the top of his head, a fumbling tenderness, a rubbery heaviness intelligently moderated, as if by an overworked god.

Filial relations that are flawed, marriages that don’t quite flow smoothly, the difficulty of getting along with each other; My Father’s Tears and Other Stories is full of the complex stuff of human existence, by a writer who has been one of its finest modern chroniclers. The work, at least, will live on.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com