What do you get when a couple of guys in their 70s spend a lot of time thinking about sex? • If those guys are a couple of lions of American literature like Jim Harrison and John Updike, you get two of my favorite novels of 2008: Harrison's The English Major and Updike's The Widows of Eastwick. • You may not think of Harrison, 71, and Updike, 76, as having much in common — Updike the sophisticated chronicler of suburbia, Harrison the passionate poet of America's wild places. • But both are prolific writers in many genres who have probed deeply into the American experience over their long careers. • And each has written a lot about sex.
They're anthropologists of adultery, doctors of desire — in Updike's Rabbit novels and Maples stories, in Harrison's Dalva and True North and his Brown Dog novellas, they have explored the sources and forms and consequences of sex, from the one-night stand to the decades-long marriage, and in every style, from lyrical to tragic to farcical.
Just last month, the Literary Review of London, which hands out the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award, gave Updike a lifetime achievement nod after his fourth nomination: "Good Sex or Bad Sex, he has kept us entertained for many years."
I must say the scene from Widows for which he was nominated this year, a straightforward description of oral sex, isn't even the worst sex scene I read that month. Maybe what made the judges squirm was that the sex was performed by a woman in her 60s, upon a man in his 40s. We do live in a youth-obsessed culture that doesn't want to imagine anyone over 30 even thinking about sex, much less having it.
In these novels, Updike and Harrison take on that silly prejudice and give it a little tickle and squeeze.
The Widows of Eastwick is, of course, a sequel to Updike's 1984 bestseller The Witches of Eastwick, about a trio of women living in an old Puritan town in Rhode Island in the not-at-all-Puritanical 1960s. Witches is a lusty book, full of Updike's trademark sly insight into sexual behavior, unusual for him only in that he considers it from women's points of view.
In Widows, set in the 21st century, the three have scattered, remarried, then lost their second husbands. Alexandra, Jane and Sukie renew their friendship and decide to spend a summer at the scene of their '60s escapades.
This time around, the women are nostalgic about the magical power of their youth — which is, in case you haven't puzzled out the metaphor, symbolic of their sexual attractiveness:
" 'All this formalism,' Sukie complained. 'It seems to me we used to do it all naturally — being witchy was just a stage of life, like menopause.'
'It was what came before menopause,' Jane said."
Updike follows the women's attempts at atonement (no escaping that Puritan past) for their long-ago sins, weaving in the theme of what happens as we age and our bodies become less beautiful, as both our desirability and our desires change.
Those same changes are posing problems for the title character of Harrison's The English Major. Cliff has just turned 60 and been divorced by his wife, who also sold the Michigan farm he worked happily for 25 years.
And, worst of all, his dog died.
Heartsick and more than half crazy, Cliff takes off on a road trip. His farming career was preceded by a decade as a high school English teacher, and his traveling companion is Marybelle, a student he kept in touch with. Then she was a smart girl with a crush on him; now she's middle-aged, stuck in a boring marriage and more than ready to consummate that schoolgirl lust.
So much so, in fact, poor Cliff ends up almost crippled — and his lust distracted, as at dinner with Marybelle: "My porterhouse had a labial rose rareness and I thought about how things get confused with desire. Never had I felt so absent of sexual desire."
Despite Cliff's woes, his road trip is Harrison's often hilarious grownup version of the classic American journey. Cliff answers a call to the OnStar in his SUV "This is Jack Kerouac," and in Portal, Ariz., an "ancient waitress" tells him that Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita, that other book about a man traveling cross-country with a schoolgirl) used to hunt butterflies there.
Cliff brings a little more wisdom to the trip than some past literary travelers — or at least earns it along the way. As he says to a beautiful young woman (who has no interest in him whatsoever), "Sometimes I wonder what desire is. It's a burden, a gift, and a curse all in one package."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.