Friday, February 14, 2014

My Father's Tears and Other Stories by John Updike

Looking back is a common theme in many of the stories in John Updike's final collection My Father's Tears and Other Stories, published several months after his death in 2009. A story that stands out to me is "The Walk with Elizanne" in which the Olinger High School class of 1950 holds its 50th reunion in a restaurant in West Alton, Pennsylvania. Before joining his class, David Kern and his second wife Andrea visit his classmate and cancer patient Mamie Kauffman, who has been in the hospital for six weeks. Mamie was a key organizer of their periodic reunions and secures a promise from David to deliver several messages that evening.

As in several of Updike's stories in My Father's Tears, readers discover in "The Walk with Elizanne" a main character who has spent most of his adult life many states away from his childhood home, gaining a perspective those who stayed put do not have. Most importantly, because he has been elsewhere, his memories of the school days are more detailed, not compromised by later events in the town. Still, his memory is imperfect. Several conversations reveal romantic opportunities that he never noticed. He, of course, then wonders what could have been and whether he took the better path. The plot is somewhat conventional. What is extraordinary is the Updike's layered storytelling.

Updike's sad reunion story, which was first published in the New Yorker, will resonate with older readers who have themselves attended reunions and have dreamed alternate narratives. Younger readers may infer the message that it is usually better to move away.

I never thought I was an Updike fan, having not cared for his novels. But having read some essays and poems from his final years, I am having a change of heart.

Updike, John. My Father's Tears and Other Stories. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 292p. ISBN 9780307271563.

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