Closure: John Updike and Sex

My first reading moment featuring a love story was the attraction between Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was in third or fourth grade. I can still conjure up their quick kiss in the cave scene in all its imaginative detail. Later, in early high school, I devoted myself to Jane Eyre’s search for purpose and discovering love with the dark, sophisticated and tormented Edward Rochester.

Amid the times when these classics encompassed my world of romance, the talk of sordid lust was through the popular Hugh Hefner’s Playboy and Penthouse magazines. No, I wasn’t a reader nor a peruser of the photos, but I had high school and college friends who were.

So it was one extreme or the other: the black and white movie type of suggested sex of the curtain blowing through the open window or the glaring centerfold and full color exposure. It was all make believe.

As a university English major, I took a class featuring novels by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike. It was the first time I read work so realistic of adult modern day life. Characters were regular people who could be my neighbors or professors. No one was literally lost in a cave or had an insane wife locked on the third floor of his mansion. The stories featured male characters and, in my memory, all of the men in John Updike’s works were in search of sex. Sex in average bedrooms like the one in my house or, now that I think about it, anywhere they could get it.

While the professor expounded on the works’ lofty themes and literary genius, and I took notes as the dutiful student who knew an analytical paper was in the offing, my real thinking was somewhere else: focused on the overabundance of sex, real, suburban sex. And perhaps I pined for the want of a gothic structure or a one-of-the-boys relationships like Nancy Drew. Instead, I think I grew up during that course and faced an all-too-realistic literary adulthood.

Today, a few decades later, I finished reading John Updike’s collection of short stories entitled My Father’s Tears, first since 2000, the inner book jacket states. Males dominate each tale, but the men are older, much older. Some are in the suburbs, some are in foreign places. All are coping with aging. “The Walk with Elizanne” is about a high school reunion, same with “The Road Home.” Even those that feature boyhood like “The Guardians” and “The Laughter of the Gods” is from a senior male hindsight.

The one short with the greatest departure from my imposed Updike theme is “Varieties of Religious Experience.” It has sex, but love and faith from its domestic to its fanatical as it encompasses the terror of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, as experienced from various perspectives.

I gave away the John Updike books I had to read in college. I was through with the white guys in search of sex. Maybe too real for me. Maybe not. I reluctantly returned to his writing with his My Father’s Tears collection. And there I was, struck again with the same issues and felt the same realness. But this time the cold, hard facts of love were taken over by an aging, male mind who wondered whether love had met expectations, matched memories or redefined definitions.

John Updike doesn’t kid around with age. He isn’t imagining the stud muffins of his youthful pieces. They exist no longer because he exists no longer in that image.

His last two stories are my favorites: “Outage” and “The Full Glass.” I see them as his eulogy to himself. In “Outage” his older-now male, sex-driven ego sees itself in both states of fantasy and reality. “The Full Glass” is his swan song. Through all of John Updike’s personal journey as a youth, adult, author, lover, father, here he is, on the edge of living, looking back and seeing life as a full glass not an empty one.

I’m not sure whether I will read his work again. I like to consider the reason being that I have come full circle and see this collection as closure for a writer who introduced me to modern, everyday male characters and their quests for love that remain, like it or not, a part of my literary memory.

As such, I raise my full glass and offer a toast. Here’s to you, John Updike: Born in 1932. Died in January 2009.

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