There’s a palpable sadness attached to the fact that, barring the discovery of unpublished work, this will the final volume of new short stories from John Updike, who died in January. Should that be the case, we can be thankful for a satisfying farewell gift that puts Updike’s unequaled talents on full display.

In a real sense, My Father’s Tears brings Updike’s career full circle. Several of the stories are set in fictional proxies for his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and nearby Reading. Two (“The Walk with Elizanne” and “The Road Home”) offer different perspectives on a protagonist’s return trips home after 50 years, while the title story tells of a young man who leaves the area to make his way in the world. 

At least three other stories are redolent with the particularity that can flow only from autobiography skillfully transmuted by the gift of imagination. “The Guardians” and “Kinderszenen” sensitively depict young boys living in claustrophobic, Depression-era households with both parents and grandparents. Befitting a collection of work consisting (with one exception) of stories published in the most recent decade of Updike’s career, the themes of aging and memory, in all their poignancy, predominate.

With stories set in Morocco, India and Spain, the collection isn’t monochromatic, either geographically or thematically.  “Varieties of Religious Experience,” recounts in chilling detail the events of 9/11 from the viewpoints of a man watching the collapse of the Twin Towers from the safety of a nearby apartment, a hijacker, an office worker who leaps to his death as the building collapses beneath him, and a passenger on one of the doomed planes.

All of the stories are distinguished by the hallmarks of Updike’s style: a graceful, almost liquid prose, a keenly observant eye and an unfailing ability to penetrate life’s mundane surface to test the currents flowing beneath it. These 18 tales from an American literary giant remind us of what we’ve lost and how much we have for which to be grateful.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

 

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