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Book Review : Updike: Suburban Punch, No Knockout

May 25, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Trust Me by John Updike (Knopf: $17.95; 294 pages)

Those Americans who read, and have reached a certain age, will remember from around 25 years ago a landmark article in Esquire that featured a full-page picture of Norman Mailer dressed as a boxer, scowling in the ring, waiting to go the distance with Ernest Hemingway, and after 16 rounds or so, emerging as champ. The contender gave it all he had. He wrote about the Good War and the Bad, about astronauts and demonstrators, about sin and deception and corruption and human longing everywhere from Palm Springs to Ancient Egypt.

But as the long fight about who was going to become this generation's "Great American Author" began to wind down--with spritely new bantamweights like Jay McInerney and Madison Smartt Bell working the punching bag down in the basement, and, God forbid, even some women's matches drawing a crowd in the next arena--suddenly, from over on the side up in the 10th row, almost hidden in the bored crowd shuffling out the door, a scrawny little guy gets up. He's wearing a bathrobe, but it's not made of satin like the champ's or the contender's. It's something you'd wear in New England suburbs, bought from some fine store 100 years ago, washed by a first wife, ironed by a second, and appliqued on it, in secret and with a great sense of the dramatic, by some suburban mistress down the street are the wiggly letters: John Updike THE REAL CHAMP.

Not by chronicling whale hunting has this generation's "great novelist" attained greatness, nor by bullfighting, nor by fighting any war. With the exception of the failing African ruler in "The Coup" or that poor writer, "Bech," who sails along in his own terms, Updike's stories--even the "Rabbit" ones--tell tales of men who get married, have children, go crazy with boredom, knock their jerry-built worlds silly, daydream about sex, have problems with impotence, spend time and energy on their suburban affairs, spend all their money on divorce, get married again, have more children, go even crazier with boredom, knock their jerry-built worlds silly again . . . etc., etc., etc.

Obviously, Updike is a "wonderful writer." It could even be said (by a far more churlish critic than I) that he has protected himself with his prose style. So dazzling are his words and images--that white Porsche in "Rabbit Redux" seizing up because the thoughtless girl hadn't put oil in it, or the hundreds of dozens of lovely things he's done with snow, or sand, or grass over the 30 years he's been working, or the stunning moment of loneliness that Bech experiences as he comes home from some writer's gig or other to a dusty apartment where nothing is happening. (If Mailer saw himself as a boxer ready to duke it out, Updike is the Chinese acrobat of adultery; stacking liaisons and weird positions and stolen moments and epiphanies all on top of each other and twirling them to beat the band.)

Updike Is an Artist

And nobody calls him on it! Nobody questions his subject matter or the repetitiousness of that subject matter, that apotheosis of all that is mediocre in America. Don't ask why. The answer might be: Updike is an artist. And he's looking at a generation that got married, had children, got bored, had affairs, got divorced, got married, had more children, got more bored than ever, and here's the really good part: They (we) were smart enough to see the futility of their (our) lives, but too lethargic to do anything about it, and finally learned to take a malicious pleasure in knocking their (our) jerry-built worlds to smithereens.

So. "Trust Me," a beautifully written collection of short stories, is more of the same; most of the stories are so much alike that they could be a row of affluent homes in an elegant housing development: "Trust Me," in which a man is betrayed by his dad, then later dumps his wife and is betrayed by his son. "Killing," in which a man sleeps with his estranged wife and remarks, ". . . Guilt I suppose. I feel guilty about Harriet sleeping with you." "Still of Some Use," in which an ex-husband helps dismantle the old house and goes with his young son to throw the old board games from childhood into the city dump. "The City," in which someone's estranged husband (full of sensibility), undergoes an emergency appendectomy by himself. "The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd," in which it is discovered that four daughters of four couples (who used to barbecue together and stack up affairs like Chinese acrobats), don't want to get married, and have become a "race of little nuns." And so on.

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