Pronounced echoes of Updike’s earlier fiction dominate this mixed-bag collection of 12 short stories and a novella: jazzlike variations (or “licks”) on the difficulties and consequences of trying to love others better than we love ourselves.
Autumnal reverie and regret, mingled with touches of erotic fantasy are the keynotes of several stories (including “The Women Who Got Away” and “New York Girl”) that evoke the milieu of suburban mate-swapping explored in Updike’s once-notorious Couples. “My Father On the Verge of Disgrace” recalls the vividly conflicted filial feelings of another fine early novel, The Centaur. The autobiographical Of the Farm comes to mind as one reads “The Cats,” about a middle-aged man who buries his elderly mother, but not the complex memories with which she has burdened—and blessed—him. And renegade novelist Henry Bech rears his busy head again, in a new story (the wistful “His Oeuvre”), and also—by imaginative proxy—in the amusing “Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War,” about a quite Bech-like banjo master’s tour of Cold War Soviet Union and his vulnerability to his own haphazard libido. Except for “Licks,” the only piece that isn’t ruminative and virtually plotless is “Metamorphosis,” a perfectly realized portrayal of a cancer patient’s eerie transformative obsession with the woman doctor who performs his “facial surgery.” But the volume’s real raison d’être is “Rabbit Remembered,” in which memories of the late ex-basketball star and serial screwup Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom are dredged up when his middle-aged illegitimate daughter meets her “other” family—and Rabbit’s hitherto nondescript son Nelson, himself aging, divorced, and seeking a family he can still belong to, proves to have been all along the one who loved his infuriating father and will honor his memory.
Updike has never been better than when writing about the Angstroms and their discontents, in his justly famous “quartet,” and in this brilliant and deeply moving coda to it, which can stand by itself as one of his finest novels.