Caretaker/Pallbearer

James Wolcott

  • The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike
    Hamish Hamilton, 308 pp, £18.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 0 241 14427 5

John Updike’s unfailing geniality and fluent industry appear to get on a fair number of nerves, of which he’s slyly aware. (Is there anything he isn’t slyly aware of? That foxy grin conceals volumes.) When Updike was but a sprig, apprenticing at the New Yorker and carving out a little piece of Pennsylvania as his literary duchy, his gleaming facility was found suspect by some detractors, its satin finish the imposture of a fair-haired boy out to impress his elders with the fine flick of his exquisite perceptions and deflective modesty. ‘The New Yorker and John Updike are both deeply immersed in the image of man as trivia,’ Alfred Chester wrote when panning Updike’s short story collection Pigeon Feathers. ‘Reading Updike, like reading the New Yorker, gives one the impression that the pages would turn to ash at the mere suggestion that life was other than a negative-positive mosquito buzzing in the ear of a total vacuum.’ Where Norman Mailer set out to bend the future with his telepathic powers and the Beats sought to hot-wire the American psyche (at the risk of frying their own circuits), Updike wrote as if he were doing fine draftsmanship under a cone of light, honouring creation and the American plenty. He was the ideal son of a platonic union between John Cheever and J.D. Salinger, with Nabokov attending the christening as fairy godfather. Apparent lack of inner struggle and purring efficiency made it possible to take him for granted. ‘No one has ever sat around worrying about Updike, the way one apparently worried about Wolfe and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as if they were all soloing the Atlantic with each book, to see whether he’s lost his touch or his nerve or his fastball,’ Wilfrid Sheed wrote in Essays in Disguise. ‘We know damn well he’ll have his touch this time and next: we just want to see whether we like what he’s done with it.’

Now that Updike’s an elder statesman in the world of letters, an elfin figure pared down to a David Levine caricature of himself, a newer generation of detractors (replacing the ones that died off) has reserved him a room at the retirement home and seems irritated that he won’t take the hint. In recent interviews and articles he acknowledges the testy impatience his lingering presence provokes in some strict quarters. Some nerve he has, refusing to vacate the stage and vanish into a silver cloud, insisting instead on bringing out one new book after another, no matter how fine a steam rises from the dome of James Wood. (Writing in the New Republic, Wood welcomed Updike’s bestseller Terrorist into the world by wishing it had been aborted: ‘John Updike should have run a thousand miles away from this subject – at least as soon as he saw the results on the page.’) Then there is Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times – ‘every writer’s friend’, he refers to her with laconic rue in Updike in Cincinnati – who often recoils from his fiction (‘chauvinistic’, ‘voyeuristic’) as if she’s been pawed on the subway by an old lech.

It isn’t only critics who’ve developed cricks in their necks. Younger novelists have voiced disgruntlement with the solipsism and literary penis-wagging of Updike’s generation of privileged males. Updike may have been praised for his missionary work on behalf of the Sexual Revolution in Couples, Marry Me and other tales from the commuter line, but the generation that followed were the children of divorce – the collateral damage of those adulterous games of musical beds. In 1997 the phenomenally gifted David Foster Wallace caused a ruckus in the pages of the New York Observer when, between wallops at Updike’s Toward the End of Time (‘a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape’), took it on himself to be spokesman for the injured party. ‘I think the major reason so many of my generation dislike Mr Updike and the other G.M.N.s has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.’ A decade later, Wallace is no longer with us, but two of the Great Male Narcissists he cited, Updike and Philip Roth, are still displaying their self-absorbency and depriving tender young empaths of valuable column inches.

With an almost audible sigh, Updike concedes that the pups have a point. ‘He or she may feel, as the grey-haired scribes of the day continue to take up space and consume the oxygen in the increasingly small room of the print world, that the elderly have the edge, with their established names and already secured honours,’ Updike recently observed in ‘The Writer in Winter’, an essay published in the American Association of Retired Persons’ bimonthly magazine. ‘I don’t mean to complain. Old age treats freelance writers pretty gently. There is no compulsory retirement at the office, and no athletic injuries signal that the game is over for good.’ And unlike other writers who grew old with and at the New Yorker (Perelman, John O’Hara, Thurber), Updike hasn’t undergone the indignity of having his work rejected, his relationship tapered; his byline, like Roger Angell’s, is one of the magazine’s most comforting standbys. A writer’s true adversaries are those that eat from the inside. It’s the rust that accretes, the synapses that no longer fire, the fading of acuity – the deep wide focus necessary to keep track of the moving parts of a long narrative. ‘An ageing writer wonders if he has lost the ability to visualise a completed work, in its complex spatial relations,’ Updike observes. ‘He should have in hand a provocative beginning and an ending that will feel inevitable. Instead, he may arrive at his ending nonplussed, the arc of his intended tale lying behind him in fragments. The threads have failed to knit. The leap of faith with which every narrative begins has landed him not on a far safe shore but in the middle of the drink.’

Curiously, the opposite occurs with The Widows of Eastwick, the sequel to 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick. It doesn’t land in the drink, it starts out in the sand trap, and takes its sweet time digging itself out. It’s understandable that Updike would wish to establish a suitable pace to reintroduce us to the coven of former playmates and arrange a proper reunion. Having put Rabbit Angstrom to rest and closed the book on Henry Bech, Updike understands the formalities of reintroducing characters who have been kept in storage. It’s been more than two decades since the original novel and the mental picture of its warlock and witches was colonised by the movie version, remembered most vividly for the leering satyr eyebrows and pagan gusto of Jack Nicholson as the warlock Darryl Van Horne (the self-described horny little devil), sharing an orgiastic hot tub with Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon. Only the passage of time could compete with their spanking charms. So here we are in the new millennium, which so far has been a distinct let-down. The witches are widows now, geographically dispersed grandmothers going about their own paltry business and needing a psychic tug to pull them together again.

Updike’s narrative device is to make one plus two equal three. He contrives a triplet of travelogues – a solo excursion, then a duo outing, then all three united in the passengers’ lounge. In the first junket, Alexandra, ‘the oldest in age, the broadest in body’ (I’m picturing Vanessa Redgrave for the film sequel), embarks on a ten-day tour of the Canadian Rockies, an opportunity for a fine medley of scenery sketches done with Updike’s droll mastery: ‘Beyond the trees across the lake, the Rockies bared themselves; they were a pleasing dove-grey, a giant geological sample of Canadian understatement.’ If only Other People didn’t insist on crowding the landscape and interposing themselves; a previous vacation to St Thomas had been ruined for Alexandra and her late husband when their rental car was besieged in traffic, ‘surrounded by black drivers who took a racist pleasure in tailgating them’. Here Alexandra has to contend with the milder nuisance of a stock Asian couple who snap photos non-stop and murder their ‘l’s. ‘You rost, too!’ they exclaim when Alexandra strays from the tour group and can’t find her way back. Pointing at her cold feet, they cry: ‘Code feet!’ What this pair of Charlie Chan rejects is doing in the novel is a puzzlement, but a more sour question mark hangs over the treatment accorded another tour member, a soft-spoken gent named Willard, who expresses condolences to Alexandra over the loss of her husband, adding in his ‘sugary, melancholy voice’ that he lost someone too: ‘My partner passed last year. We’d been together for 37 years.’

A tiny bell rings in the parlour of Alexandra’s brain.

Partner. One of the new code words, usefully bland. Willard was one of those. She’d been fooled before. She felt some relief and some resentment. This fag had been wasting her time.

(This what?)

‘That’s a long time,’ Alexandra said. She did not add, for a pair of fairies. Who notoriously flit around, breaking each other’s hearts with their infidelities, their unchecked attraction to younger fairies.

Flitting fairies? That Alexandra was ‘sucked into the orbit of a homosexual man’ and ‘betrayed’ way back when in Eastwick seems a slim reed on which to drape sneering contempt towards a character whose sole trespass is to engage in conversation and extend sympathy – whose presence has no bearing on the storyline, slack though that is. When Willard materialises a few pages later, again courteous to a fault, Alexandra can’t resist, noting: ‘His studied lumberjack costumes seemed, in retrospect, faggy.’ Between the Asians talking funny (at least they didn’t order ‘flied lice’), the dried-fig widower modelling the latest in lumberjack attire, and the other load-bearing women annoying her on the tour (‘boring, overfed human does’), Alexandra would seem to be less than the ideal travelling companion, but the novel proceeds to hook her up with her former co-conspirator, Jane, who proposes a fun trip to Egypt, and off they go: pyramids, tombs, bustling bazaars, majestic floats along the banks of the Nile, camel rides, the whole bit, complete with tour-guide patter: ‘“The great dam at Aswan,” she explained, “has raised the water levels in the Nile valley.”’ Yes, it’s almost as boring as being there, the witchy widows enjoying cocktails after a long hot day shlepping the eternal sands, their thoughts turning reflective:

‘Why are Egyptians so happy?’ Jane asked Alexandra from her adjacent deckchair.

‘I don’t know. Why?’

‘They’re in de-Nile.’

 ‘Ouch.’

Ouch is right, and Updike in his methodical cruelty doesn’t spare us Jane’s twaddlings on Egyptian mythos, moistened by her sibilant hiss.

Really, ssweetie, those old Egyptian priests must have laughed themselves silly, thinking of the nonsense they put over on everybody, not for a day or a week but for millennia! What did the guide at Edfu tell us? The Temple of Amun at Thebes was given 1500 square kilometres by Ramses III alone? Ten per cent of all the cultivatable land at the time? No wonder the Nubians and Hyksos and whoever kept pushing in. It was a very ssick situation.

Galumphing through this travel brochure come to life and listening to heavy earfuls of pharaoh lore affords the two the opportunity to contemplate ‘the solemn ponderosity of death’, but mortality’s dark fingers are already rooted so deep in the corporeal decay of the characters that they (or we) hardly need Egyptian eschatology to remind us of the black door waiting at the end of the hall.

Even more extraneous is the final leg of the wiccans’ world tour, which finds the remaining member of the hot tub sorority, Sukie, joining Alexandra and Jane for a trip to China. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of the Great Wall, the visit to Mao’s mausoleum, the Yangtze river, the history lessons about to unfold (‘China within their memory-span had taken various forms: a fabled land of starving children, Pearl Buck peasants, dragon ladies, rickshaws and comic-strip pirates; a friendly democracy ably led by Chiang Kai-shek and his glamorous Soong-sister wife’ – come back, Pearl Buck! All is forgiven!), the tacky cavalcade of fellow Westerners in their native garb (‘Sukie asked a plump American, a grotesque barbarian in Bermuda shorts, billed baseball cap and running shoes, to take their photograph’), Updike’s running commentary all the more runny because he has shared his impressions of China before, in his essay ‘Back from China’ (reprinted in Due Considerations),[*] which ended on a confessional note of existential fright, one of the few times he’s allowed his suave mask to slip. On their return from China, the widows waste a few pages playing phone tag trying to determine where their next passport to adventure should lead, vetoing Mexico, Ireland and the Caribbean (‘“Ssaint Croix is a sssilly suggestion,” she hissed’) before arriving at the inevitable answer, the reason we’re reading this novel, the original scene of their sins and crimes – the witching grounds of Eastwick, Rhode Island.

Here’s my philistine advice, straight from the donkey’s mouth. Skip the first third of the novel, flip to page 121 in the hymnal, and begin there. Because from the first sentence – ‘News that the damnable trio were back in town percolated from ear to ear like rainwater trickling through the tunnels of an ant colony’ – Updike is in his native element, his eye and mind the greatest notational devices of any postwar American novelist, precision instruments unimpaired by age and wear. Abroad, Updike is still only a glorified sightseer, a Keen Observer, but in his native land he blends the roles of novelist, historian, social critic, civics teacher, randy theologian, anthropologist, dermatologist, photorealist illuminator of drugstore aisle and automobile showroom (every shiny accent in place), and caretaker/pallbearer of the New Yorker tradition of scrupulous observation salted with a proper measure of irony, acerbity, dismay and regret, depending on the circumstance or site under inspection:

The new wing of the Eastwick Public Library was larger than the original, a 19th-century benefaction of lumpy brownstone that had sat with a certain touching self-importance at the centre of a gentle dome of public green. The glass-and-concrete addition took up again as much space and had caused a new driveway and a generous parking lot to pave over swathes of grass where children and dogs used to play. The much-vaunted auditorium, with its lobby and adjacent function room, extended beneath a main floor devoted, table after table, to computers where town idlers played video games and ingeniously searched for pornography. The section of children’s books, once a modest nook of colourful slim volumes presumed to be transitional to adult reading, had greatly expanded, into tall cases of inch-thick walnut, as if to memorialise the end of reading for all but a few of the library’s patrons. The concert-and-lecture hall, optimistically conceived to hold improving events almost every night, betrayed its subterranean condition with stifled acoustics that to spectators in the back corners gave tonight’s concert a spectral, mimed aspect.

It’s quite an observatory Updike houses in his brain, his characters sometimes appearing as small and blank as the human figures positioned around an architectural model or a railroad set. It’s interesting – almost inspiring, really – how entertaining The Widows of Eastwick manages to be once its plot mechanisms get into motion, despite its prattle, awkward stretches and artifice. The return of the three witches to the village they once vexed tees up the settling of a personal and cosmic score and the making of amends. In the first novel, the trio trained their wrath on Darryl Van Horne’s fiancée with a fatal spell. ‘We killed Jenny Gabriel, that’s what we did,’ Alexandra reminds Jane, providing a recap for the reader. ‘After bewitching Clyde’s wife so that he killed her with a poker and then hung himself.’ Eh, so what, is Jane’s response. Ancient history. But Jenny’s aggrieved brother Chris is lurking in the shadows (‘Older, fatter, faggier,’ Jane reports) and taking retaliatory measures, armed with some sort of electromagnetic shock device inherited from Van Horne. Electricity is the omnipresent rogue force in Eastwick, where even the clicking of laptop keys coats the air ‘with a furtive film of panic’. Jane is knocked sideways by a bolt of energy near a telegraph pole and suffers acute abdominal pains; Alexandra sickens and undergoes a cancer scare, feeling as if she’s been invaded by an alien army, ‘eaten alive from within by tiny hatching spider babies’. Only Sukie is unaffected, her sexual vitality still potent enough to fend off evil ions and make old lovers lick their chapped lips. She’s proof that just because you’re a prime candidate for hip replacement doesn’t mean you have to retire to a private nunnery, like some wilted daffodil in Anita Brookner declining the solace of an after-dinner mint. Late-life celibacy is no automatic character-improver or cleansing agent:

Sukie had imagined before turning old that quirks – bad traits and mannerisms – would fall away, once the need to make a sexual impression was removed; without the distraction of sex, a realer, more honest self would be revealed. But it is sex, it turned out, that engages us in society, and keeps us on our toes, and persuades us to retract our rough edges, so we can mix in.

To stay on her toes, Sukie goes down on her knees. That’s how things are done in the fallen world of geriatric erotica. No Updike novel seems quite complete without a fancy cumshot, as they say in the porn trade, the artistic blowjob in Seek My Face earning a runner-up citation in the 2003 Bad Sex Awards (‘his pale semen inside her mouth, displayed on her arched tongue like a little Tachiste masterpiece’), and his larger body of work garnering him a Lifetime Achievement Award this year. The BJ performed here is a bit less refined than Seek My Face’s nimble juggling feat, but luminous as only an Updike emission can be: ‘Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.’ A sloppy facial set to the ‘rhythmic relentless shushing’ of the sea – it may not be the stuff of Gershwin romance, but it’ll do until creaky infirmity takes even Sukie out of commission, round about the year 2016.

Although The Widows of Eastwick is unsparing in its topographical study of bodily decay, inventorying every wattle, welt, wrinkle, sag, liver spot, varicose vein, flaky patch and set of receding gums, it finds no hopeful influx of romping, coltish vigour from the generations below. What a let-down the widows’ middle-aged children and their spouses are: a lumpy, dumpy, grumpy, sullen, sallow, lax bunch of softies rebelling against the Sexual Revolution by becoming risk-averse little hobbits. ‘Why are children so disappointing?’ Alexandra laments. ‘They take your genes and run them right into the ground.’ Into the ground is where everything in Widows is irreversibly heading, its former libertines bony and graveyard-bound, the country that produced them past its postwar peak and in poky decline, gathering moss as it lumbers downhill. Heavy on mortality, light on morbidity, Updike elegises entropy American-style with a resigned, paternal, disappointed affection that distinguishes his fiction from that of grimmer declinists: Don DeLillo, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth. America may have lost its looks and stature, but it was a beauty once, and worth every golden dab of sperm.

[*] Penguin, 703 pp., £14.99, October 2008, 978 0 141 03311 2.