Books and authors, universal and personal history and miscellaneous arcana are carefully considered in this sixth showcase of Updike’s (Terrorist, 2006, etc.) tireless versatility and imposing range of interests.
Following the pattern established by such stimulating predecessors as Hugging the Shore (1983) and Odd Jobs (1991), it vividly reflects the motions of a busy mind finely attuned to the worlds it inhabits, explores and celebrates. Under the rubric “Everything Considered,” for example, Updike ponders features common to “works written late in an writer’s life”; the pleasures and distortions of literary biography; the sensual feel of “metal money” (i.e., coins, as opposed to paper currency); the enjoyment of playing poker physically (and not electronically); and cars he has owned (and, sometimes, loved). Tributory essays pay homage to such dissimilar figures as the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and the neglected Midwestern novelist Wright Morris. The man of letters in Updike responds eloquently when introducing new editions or translations of classic works (e.g., the Welsh Mabinogion, Thoreau’s Walden). Though often a cheerleader, Updike is never uncritical or facile, whether examining L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as a quest novel or arguing that Uncle Tom’s Cabin benefits because its crusading author “repeatedly confronts the most accessible argument for atheism. God’s apparent silence and indifference to human suffering.” Modern American writers from Edmund Wilson to Jonathan Safran Foer, and their UK counterparts, from William Trevor to Ian McEwan, receive respectful critical attention—as do works written “In Other Tongues” by such masters as Álvaro Mutis (Colombia’s Faulkner), Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and Japan’s beguiling Nobel contender Haruki Murakami. Such critical gems are the heart of the book, but don’t overlook rich essays on artists (e.g., Goya, Dürer, Piranesi), or, among the volume’s concluding ephemera, three perfect paragraphs on the assigned subject, “What I Believe.”
One of our best novelists proves once again that he’s one of our best writers.