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Licks of Love

By John Updike
Published by Hamish Hamilton

One of the grandest old men of American letters, now in his sixty-ninth year, shows no sign of flagging in his unceasing productivity. Since his fiction debut in 1959 with The Poorhouse Fair, over eighteen novels and eleven short story collections, he has been perhaps the most consistent chronicler of the foibles and failings, lovings and longings, blasted hopes and broken dreams, of middle class, increasingly middle-aged, Middle America.
His new book contains twelve stories, and a novella length sequel to his quartet of novels about Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, entitled Rabbit Remembered. The stories are almost uniformly nostalgic in tone, recalling old loves and past scenes from a perspective of age. Indeed, one is simply titled ‘Scenes from the Fifties’. They are not all completely successful. ‘My Father on the Verge of Disgrace’ and ‘The Cats’ are long and rambling, and in their meanderings seem to lack necessary focus and tension. Likewise, no matter what first person narrative voice Updike adopts, they all enjoy a daunting facility with language, in which they revel, but that can in turn undercut the believability, if the character is not a writer who would share his creator’s extraordinary way with words.

 

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However, when he hits top form, and the tone matches the character, as in ‘New York Girl’ or the title story, ‘Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War’, there is considerable pleasure to be had in letting his measured, honed style and his wry, worldly tone wash over you. In the former, a man from Buffalo recollects his extramarital affair with a gallery worker, while on business trips to New York, selling picture frames manufactured by his engineering company. ‘Once you were in New York, you were on another planet, a far shore; it cried out for you to establish another life.’, and ‘It was a revelation to me, this wee-hour camaraderie of New Yorkers, and the city’s genial way of folding my adultery into its round-the-clock hustle.’ Redolent of the milieu of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, it is extremely well-written. The latter is about an American banjo virtuoso, demonstrating his licks to an enthralled Soviet audience while touring as Cultural Ambassador under Khrushchev’s more open regime, while being hounded by letters from his home country in the aftermath of a one-night stand in Washington, DC.
In ‘His Oeuvre’, another old Updike character, the writer Bech, encounters the phenomenon of women he has slept with years ago turning up at his book readings. ‘These women who showed up at his readings did it, it seemed clear, to mock his books - clever, twisted, false books, empty of almost all that mattered, these women he had slept with were saying. We, we are your masterpieces.’
Most of the stories have a present day denouement, usually with the characters meeting up again, accidentally. It is noteworthy how often this happens in malls.
It is the novella, in which Rabbit’s survivors - wife, lovers, son, friends - entertain his memory while pursuing their own happiness over the edge of the millennium, which is most engaging, providing as it does a compelling snapshot of contemporary America. This includes the rise of therapy culture and information technology, and features an extended family Thanksgiving dinner scene, where an argument about the Clintons causes friction. This is reminiscent of the Christmas dinner scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where similar tensions were raised by a discussion of Parnell.
Updike is, of course, the doyen of suburban adultery, and this means he may be curiously relevant to Ireland right now, since the modernising Nineties here in many ways paralleled Sixties America, with the consequent spread of sexual freedom. However, depending on how interested you are in who’s shagging who, sometimes you long for the more astringent and compendious vision of a Thomas Pynchon, a Don DeLillo, or a David Foster Wallace. The latter’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a blistering series of satires on the intellectual vacuity and self-serving character of the contemporary culture of therapy, more biting and on the money than one will find in Updike. There is a certain lack of imagination and cosiness with Updike that can become predictable and a trifle rich. Still, his deftness with spinning a story, or a line, when he’s not cruising lazily in auto-pilot, is remarkably seductive, and can be recommended.

First published in the Evening Herald


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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