When John Updike passed away in January, he left behind a massive body of work, including 23 published novels plus a number of short-story collections, books of critical writing, and poetry. More than anything else, he left behind a certain perspective, a way of looking at the world that is rapidly going out of fashion. In My Father’s Tears And Other Stories, a posthumous collection of Updike’s fiction written and published largely during the 21st century, that perspective finds its latest and possibly last expression in musings on divorce, old history, and how life looks through the other end of the telescope. It’s a thoughtful book that favors reliability over surprises, and serves as a fitting conclusion to a remarkable career.
Arranged in the order they were written, Tears opens with its only entry composed before 2000: “Morocco,” a tale about a family’s struggles to vacation in Europe. It’s not a bad piece, but the collection’s major themes really come into play in “Personal Archaeology,” which follows an aging landowner attempting to uncover the past that’s strewn across his property. That struggle to make sense of an accumulation of memories pervades the book; again and again, men make the same mistakes: with women, like in “Spanish Prelude To A Second Marriage,” or with the connections to their descendants, like in “Blue Light.” Updike even responds to 9/11 in the tasteful, multi-faceted “Varieties Of Religious Experience.”
“Tasteful” could be applied to the collection as a whole; aside from a few mentions of sex, Tears is reserved, mature, and thoroughly reasonable. Updike takes few risks, and at times the collection seems less like a group of stories than a series of variations on a single set of constants. But with each successive variation, Updike works to arrive at conclusions that aren’t so much reassuring as resigned. The calmness hides a deep ambiguity toward social obligations and relationships with God. Tears has its missteps, like “Outage,” which uses a power failure to make a tedious point about extramarital affairs, but those are minor faults. On the whole, this is a rich, moving anthology where lack of surprises is part of the point; once a man reaches a certain age, there aren’t that many surprises left.