Reaching the end
My Father’s Tears and Other Stories
John Updike’s death in January ended a prolific career that included a canon of novels, short fiction, poetry and criticism. His final collection of 18 short stories, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, contains all the nostalgia of a man reflecting on a long career, expertly mixing in the exhilaration of youth and the trials of old age. But Updike’s last tales are not divorced from the present, especially those of a suddenly more globalized, connected and conflicted world.
The majority of the stories in My Father’s Tears are from the perspective of an old man reflecting on his formative younger years. The speakers of stories such as “Personal Archaeology” and “The Walk With Elizanne” start with the admission that most of his friends and acquaintances are dead or dying—“The Walk With Elizanne” begins with a hospital visit to a former classmate who is too ill with cancer to attend her 50th high-school reunion, located only a half-mile away.
However, Updike’s repeated use of a male perspective can be frustrating and repetitive. Not only does My Father’s Tears lack a single female main character, but all the women in the various stories fall into one of two categories: the elderly wife or the mistress. In fact, most of the tales of nostalgia and reflection emphasize and linger on the man’s affairs as he wonders where that more fun and sensual partner is now. The predictability and frequency of the moment where he wonders what happened to both his mistress and his youth spoil more of the stories’ more interesting moments.
Updike sets many of these stories in exotic locations such as Spain, India and Africa, offering a global perspective that makes an interesting comparison to those tales set in Updike’s childhood Pennsylvania home. Even the seemingly banal moments of an American family living in England and vacationing in Morocco seem to emphasize the stark contrast between the exotic and the familiar. Running a red light and then outrunning a pursuing policeman acts as the last memorable “family event” because of its strange setting, more so even than a visit to the Eiffel Tower soon after.
These more global stories are all told from the perspective of the visiting American, however. The natives remain mysterious and mute—the only thing we see of Spain in “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe” is the clean-shaven cheek of a thief attempting to run away with the narrator’s girlfriend’s purse. This insistently American perspective helps to highlight the freedom of movement that comes with modernity, but also the limitations that come with it in terms of blindness to other cultures.
This global clash is also presented in “Varieties of Religious Experience” (the title invokes the master work of the psychologist William James), which recounts the events of September 11 from the perspectives of a New Yorker, a terrorist, a World Trade Center employee and an ill-fated airplane passenger. The story expertly offers the comparison in ideologies, reactions and emotions that resulted from the tragedy, as well as the events that would follow.
Updike fittingly ends his collection of stories with “The Full Glass,” which focuses on an old man’s nightly routine of brushing his teeth and taking his pills. The act of filling a glass of water takes him back through a long life: enjoying cool water from the tap for the first time, water bugs and the discovery of girls. It is an outline of Updike’s entire career in one story, as he concludes: “If I can read this strange old guy’s mind right, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.”