John Updike has been one of the most celebrated American authors for over 50 years. He has published more words than some people ever speak.
The National Endowment of Humanities website sums up his life and work (so far) in this way —
His pen rarely at rest, John Updike has been publishing fiction, essays, and poetry since the mid-fifties, when he was a staff writer at the New Yorker, contributing material for the “Talk of the Town” sections. “Of all modern American writers,” writes Adam Gopnik in Humanities magazine, “Updike comes closest to meeting Virginia Woolf’s demand that a writer’s only job is to get himself, or herself, expressed without impediments.”
When asked to describe his own work, Updike has said –
“My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
I first encountered Updike’s writings when I read Rabbit, Run where he masterfully narrates the story through Harry Angstrom, a former high school basketball star, now 26, looking to escape his conventional middle class existence. I don’t remember much of the story, but remember Harry to be completely self-absorbed and obsessed with sex (basically an all-American male).
Today I decided to explore one of Updike’s short stories – “Short Easter” (found in The Afterlife: and other stories).
Fogel, the 62-year old main character, is not looking forward to Easter (this year shortened by Daylight Savings Time). In fact, it’s hard to say just what Fogel is looking forward to, as he basically rails against modern life and all things in it. Updike describes Fogel’s road rage –
If Fogel’s stately Mercedes had been equipped with a button that would annihilate other vehicles, he would have used it three or four times a mile. Almost every other automobile on the road – those that passed him, those so slow he had to pass them, those going just his speed and hanging in his side mirrors like pursuing furies – seemed a deliberate affront, restricting his freedom and being somehow pretentious about it.
Fogel is angered about getting old. He is angered by a wife who is not his mother. He is angered by lost opportunities. Reflecting back on a failed love affair, he reflects –
One small side-effect still rankled: their affair ended in the springtime, and his former mistress declined to invite him and his family to an Easter egg hunt she and her family annually gave. His children’s feelings were hurt, and for consolation they were taken out, after church, to eat at the International House of Pancakes. Heaps of pancakes, Fogel remembered – buckwheat, buttermilk, blueberry – that seemed, soaked in syrup, almost unswallowably sweet.
Lost in his anger at perceived slights, stuck with people who don’t meet his needs, getting sore in body and mind, Fogel goes through the motions of doing some yard work (after being shamed into it by his wife). Even digging in the leaves, though, he can’t escape his dissatisfaction –
One of his fantasies was a kind of ray gun that, directed at a plant or tree, would not only kill it, but vaporize it to a fine, fertilizing ash. Agricultural labor, this endless plucking of weeds and replowing of fields, had always seemed to him the essence of futility.
After some yard work, it’s off to a neighborhood brunch which “was also pointless”. (So why bother to review it.)
He comes home and wanders into the room of his son, who left for college ten years ago.
His mother liked to keep the room as he had left it, as some fanatical religious sects keep a room ready in case Jesus returns and asks to be a guest.
Fogel is weary from the labor, from the gin, tomato juice and champagne, and likely with his miserable post-middle age existence. He lays down across the bed and falls asleep. As he sleeps, he comes to life –
He dreamed in the deep colors of true weariness. Electricity wandered through his brain, activating one set of memory cells and now another. A wash of buried emotion rounded these phantoms into light and shadow, and cried out tears and outcries of indignation from Fogel’s phantom self; he presided above the busy lit stage of his subconscious as prompter and playwright, audience and deus ex machine as well as hero.
Suddenly, Fogel wakes up full of fear, curls up in a fetal position and looks around him.
Everything was in its place, yet something was immensely missing.
On this Easter day, there is hope that Fogel will rise from his self-induced tomb of anger and regret and light up the stage with new life.
Or was it only a dream?