In "The Full Glass," the final story in John Updike's final book, the narrator, recollecting the moments of greatest joy in his long life, recalls visiting a relative's farm as a boy and being taken to a spring. "Spidery water striders walked on its surface," Updike writes, "and the dimples around their feet threw inter-locking golden-brown rings onto the sandy bottom." It is an unassuming description and yet miraculously exact. Another writer might have given us "bugs on the clear water" or the like, but Updike sees the shadows cast by the indentation made by the insects' feet and he sees the color of those shadows and the texture of the ground on which they fall. The "tin dipper" he uses to drink from the spring connects back to the full glass of the title and later in the story the narrator, lying in bed with his wife, "can't fall back into unconsciousness, like a water strider held aloft on the surface tension of her beautiful stillness."
Here, then, on display one last time, are the cardinal virtues of a writer who bestrode the American literary landscape for more than half a century: a virtuosic talent for sensual description, the seemingly effortless weaving of image and theme, and an almost Proustian capacity to absorb the reader in the quiddities of childhood and adolescence.
The jacket copy for "My Father's Tears" does not lie when it says the book finds Updike in a "valedictory mood." In one of the best stories in the collection, "Free," an aging widower visits an old lover, turned hard now in the Florida sun, and decides not to reconsumate the affair, returning instead to the inn where he used to vacation with his wife. "The Guardians" and "Kinderszenen" are less stories than fragments of memoir treating the Depression-era Pennsylvania upbringing that provided a seemingly endless wellspring for Updike's imagination.
This is a book full of reunions - with old lovers, with high school classmates, with aging friends at country clubs; and full of men casting a wistful eye on girls and women who represent a vitality long gone. In "A Walk With Elizanne," David Kern returns with his second wife to the 50th high school reunion in Olinger, the fictional town of Updike's earliest and finest short stories, where a woman he barely recognizes reminds him that he was the first boy to kiss her. This occasions a long reverie and a thought that could well be the subtitle of this book: "For a man there is no antidote to death but a woman."
Also on display in "My Father's Tears" are what some consider Updike's cardinal sins: his indifference to plot (many of the narratives here are little more than excuses for recollection), the repetitiveness of subject matter (12 of the 18 stories circle around suburban infidelities and divorce, or memories thereof), and the pervading solipsism of the (always) male protagonists (the narrator of "The Full Glass," for example, is relieved that a woman with whom he once had an affair is now dead because it "removes a confusing presence from the world").
And indeed, the issue of gender aside, it can be infuriating and even a touch macabre to read about a man reliving with his classmates jokes that date to grade school. It's in these moments where one feels that, notwithstanding his nuance, Updike has nuzzled a bit too comfortably up against the soft underbelly of American sentimentality, a gauzy, untroubled retrospect that one could fairly say he himself helped to fashion, at least in its literary manifestation.
And yet, in maddeningly circular fashion, this is also one his virtues: He risks sentiment, something many young writers today avoid for fear of appearing gullible or overly earnest. Thus, in the strongest and mostly clearly autobiographical title story of the book, Updike gives us a gently moving account of his relationship to his father, refracted through a beautifully limpid description of getting to know his father-in-law as a young man in Vermont, and bringing his wife home for the first time, circling around to his own father's death. The story's only plot is memory, the setting is familiar, the tone elegiac. And it works. It's honest and complex and philosophical without pretense.
Coming at the end of a career as prolific as Updike's, "My Father's Tears" will most likely be recorded as a minor event, a compilation of B-sides to more fully formed versions of the same material. In this sense, it may be more for the aficionado than the causal reader. But, to use the author's own words at the end of his last story, "If I can read this strange old guy's mind aright, he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned."