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comments on the life issues in John Updike’s last book

Here, courtesy of Frank Zapatka, are some reflections on passages in John Updike’s last book that address the life issues.

Richard M.

Here are Frank’s comments–

The late John Updike (1931-2009) makes several casual references to life issues in five stories in his last book, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories (NY: Knopf, 2009). As brief and indirect as these references are, they seem to be indicative of current attitudes of many people about these matters.

In “Personal Archaeology,” there is a short passage which illustrates how casually abortion was taken for granted by some in the affluent unidentified neighborhood near Boston in which the story is set.  Craig Martin, the elderly central character, reminiscing about his past social life recalls that “cocktail parties were lethal melees, wherein lovers with a murmur cancelled assignations or agreed upon abortions” (p.22). Since Updike wrote as a realist, the matter of fact attitude toward abortion expressed in this passage, would be hard to dismiss as a fanciful fiction.

On a more life affirming note in the title story, an autobiographical persona Updike names Jim Werley recalls: “It was in Vermont, before the others arrived, that, by our retrospective calculations, we conceived our first child, unintentionally but with no regrets. This microscopic event deep within my bride became allied in my mind with the little rainbow low on the bathroom wall, our pet imp of refraction” (198).

In a somewhat similar vein in “Kinderszenen,” set presumably, in the 1930’s, the narrator in the voice of a child, Toby, describes his elderly next door neighbors, the Echelbergers, about whom his mother declares, “their tragedy is they never had any children.” The narrator, in an authorial voice, then informs the reader: “Toby is an only child and so is his mother, so he escaped into life by the narrowest of chances” (215). 

The two passages with their surprising turns of phrase (“microscopic event deep within my bride” and “escap[ing] into life”) would seem to constitute an appreciation, however oblique, of the “gift of life.”

Another life affirming short passage is found in “Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage.” The narrator speaking of the male central character asks rhetorically “…what wife, really, would he ever know as well as he knew her [his mother]? “Even as a fetus he had been attuned to her moods and inner workings” (114). Some who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” of course,  would experience,  discomfort reading the previous sentence.

Benjamin Foster, the central character, in “Laughter of the Gods,” having asked his mother about his father’s and her past hears; “We both felt embarrassed at having been born. My parents had wanted a boy, and Daddy was the youngest of four, he always felt he was ‘one more mouth to feed’” (78). So much for welcoming the gift of new life.

The last of these oblique  references to  life issues, is made in the title story again. Jim Werley, the narrator/persona at his fifty-fifth high school reunion observes that “the sports stars and non-athletes alike  move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead” (207). Some “qualitarians,” as Walker Percy might put it, would consider it inconsiderate for such physically challenged senior citizens to continue to live.  I would also suggest that lurking in such an attitude, which doubtless many consider harmless, would be the seed of what grows into what some consider a “duty to die.”

Later in the story, the narrator having told a memory challenged classmate that his (Jim Werley’s)  father had died many years earlier, thinks to himself that if he had still been living, he “would have been over a hundred and running up big bills in a nursing home (208).

Observations like “taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead” and “would have been over a hundred and running up big bills in a nursing home” no doubt, would sit well with euthanasia and assisted suicide activists.

Richard Myers

Richard S. Myers, the Vice-President of UFL, is Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law, where he teaches Antitrust, Civil Procedure, Conflict of Laws, Constitutional Law, and Religious Freedom. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Kenyon College and earned his law degree at Notre Dame, where he won the law school's highest academic prize. He began his legal career by clerking for Judge John F. Kilkenny of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Professor Myers also worked for Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in Washington, D.C. He taught at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law before joining the Ave Maria faculty. He is a co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (Catholic University of American Press, 2004) and a co-editor of Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy (Scarecrow Press, 2007). He has also published extensively on constitutional law in law reviews and also testified before Congressional and state legislative hearings on life issues. Married to Mollie Murphy, who is also on the faculty at Ave Maria School of Law, they are the proud parents of six children - Michael, Patrick, Clare, Kathleen, Matthew, and Andrew.