In a distinguished writing career that spanned more than half a century, John Updike turned a lapidary eye on virtually every aspect of American life.
It's only fitting that in My Father's Tears, his final, posthumously published collection of short stories, he turns that gaze — bent upon both precision and beauty — to death.
Updike died in January of lung cancer. He knew for some time that he was facing death, and just as he had when he faced love, lust, ambition, failure, parenthood, aging and so many other universal human experiences, he fearlessly made his dying into material for his wonderful fiction.
Most of the characters in these stories are aging; even when, as in The Guardians, a man is vividly recalling his childhood as the center of a loving family, he does so from the perspective of old age, trying to average out the life spans of his parents and grandparents to magically arrive at the number of years he has left himself.
Deliberate attempts at formal nostalgia almost always go wrong for Updike's characters. Melancholy school reunions (is there any other kind?) like the one in The Walk With Elizanne remind them of missed opportunities, as do attempted trysts with long-ago lovers. In Free, a widower impassioned by the memory of an affair drives all the way across Florida to see his former lover only to wonder why he ever had the affair in the first place.
The public world recedes as well. The beleaguered main character of The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe thinks, "Other than the obituaries, newspapers had less and less in them that pertained to Fairchild — crucial sports contests, burning social issues, international crises all took place over a certain horizon. A curvature of concern left him out of it; he was islanded."
What burns brighter than ever, though, for these characters is memory — not of big, supposedly life-shaking moments like a wedding or birth or promotion or prize, but of experiences that didn't even seem important at the time, or didn't reveal their meaning until much later.
The narrator of the title story recalls one such moment, the only time he saw his father cry, as the younger man was getting on a train to return to college. At the time, the boy saw that sadness as being all about himself: "I was going somewhere, and he was seeing me go."
By the time that his father dies, years later, he knows those tears were his father grieving for himself — the bright peak of a child's life always pushes his parents off the mountain.
Even the warmest memories are touched with rue; the narrator of My Father's Tears thinks, "It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are in front of you." But they sustain with their mystery and beauty: the color and scent of a woman's hair, the flowers in a childhood garden, the quirks of a parent's speech.
Many of the stories take place in Olinger, the fictional double for Updike's hometown of Shillington, Pa. In The Road Home, David Kern returns to that territory and finds his overlay of memory of what the landscape used to be is so strong that he keeps getting lost in what's there now.
A few of the stories venture elsewhere, including one of the best, Varieties of Religious Experience. Many writers have undertaken novels related to the 9/11 attacks (including Updike himself, in his 2006 book Terrorist). But this brief short story is as extraordinary as any fiction about that event I've read.
It begins with Dan Kellogg, a middle-aged man visiting his daughter in New York that fateful day, thinking as the towers fall, "There is no God." Dan's terrifying, then numbing experiences that day occupy the story's first section, followed by one from the viewpoint of Mohamed, a jihadist pounding down scotch in a Florida strip bar a few days before 9/11, seething with contempt for American culture.
In the next, Jim Finch sits in his cubicle near the top of the World Trade Center. In the course of a phone call with his wife he tumbles from bemusement with smoke and bits of paper drifting upward past his window to the stifling, hollowing knowledge of his imminent death. In the fourth part, an old woman named Carolyn reminisces about her childhood on a flight passing over Pennsylvania, until a man with a box cutter stands at the front of the plane.
And in the story's final section, Dan visits his daughter again six months later, worries about his little granddaughter's avid interest in the disaster and gently tells her it wouldn't be American to replace the towers just as they were: "We move on, don't we?"
Memory, merciful and self-preserving and self-editing, in Updike's hands is the armor with which we face our own relegation to the memory of others. My Father's Tears is a moving, lovely coda.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.