Review by Peter Wolfe
The stories contained in the last book John Updike completed before his death this year take place between the Depression and the aftermath of 9/11.
In fact, the book's longest story, "Varieties of Religious Experience," opens the morning of 9/11. Looking west from his daughter's Brooklyn Heights apartment, a Cincinnati lawyer sees the south tower of the World Trade Center sinking into a column of black smoke. The catastrophe develops as an urgent multisensory event.
In a later scene, this same greasy smoke combines with the stench of burning jet fuel and crushing heat to send a room full of screaming office workers in the tower to, and soon out of, their firm's upper-story windows.
Updike, who was born in 1932, also brings the Depression to vivid life through well-chosen details - or their absence. The grandmother who would always greet the now-senior narrator of "The Guardians" after school is cleaning houses to make ends meet, and the family's Model-A Ford has left the driveway.
Disappearance is a leading conceit in these fine stories, most of which center on a divorced, remarried father in his 70s whose golfing buddies, poker partners and business contacts have gone mostly to Florida or the grave.
This archetypal figure, like Updike, was an only child who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania vexed by a stammer and psoriasis. As a young adult, his brains helped him wed above his station, but only to divorce his genteel wife 20 years and three or four children later in order to marry the neighbor he had been sleeping with.
Another recurring motif: the 50th or 55th class reunion the Updike stand-in attends. "Free" confirms an earlier decision of an elder and a former "lithe and wanton tormenter of masculine bliss" to break up rather than marry. The value of their intrigue, they now see, lay in the forbidden jungle glamour given it by their respective marriages. They'd have failed as a married couple.
This epiphany forms part of an ongoing self-inventory that brightens the archetypal figure with two vital truths: that the tough decisions he made over the past decades gave him the good life he's grateful to have had and that the world, after he leaves it, will remain in good hands.
The rich variety and the confident rhythmic stride of Updike's prose shows that, in "My Father's Tears," he wasn't an old man rushing into print the fugitive thoughts and impressions that came to him at the end of a long life.
"My Father's Tears" is vintage Updike, its honesty and courage vaulting it to the top tier of its author's many short-story collections.