Updike's 'Villages': Small, 'safe,' skillful


October 24, 2004|By Ken Tucker | Ken Tucker,Special to the Sun

Villages, by John Updike. Knopf. 321 pages. $25.

John Updike's new, elegiac yet erotic Villages is a portrait of a family man and "a life of bourgeois repose," as the wry omniscient narrator puts it, told over decades. It's the story of Owen Mackenzie, a married-with-children software programmer whose various East Coast places of residence (including Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) are typified by his years in the smallish town of Middle Falls, Conn. Everything about Owen -- from his nuclear family to his two marriages to his well-paying but nondescript job to his just-average places of residence (no "Great" Falls for this character or his creator) -- is intended to render him ordinary. That is, except for his exceptionally lively inner life, which becomes Updike's implied theme: that we all, no matter how humdrum we may think we or others are, have secrets, desires, hopes and agonies that no one else can fathom.

Owen is 70 years old as Villages begins, looking back on his life, married first to the prim Phyllis and later to Julia, five years younger than Owen -- "a source of pride and sexual stimulus" to the goaty villager who is a typical Updike hero: preternaturally observant, randy and cranky, aware of the popular culture in the '70s period in which much of the book is set but resistant to its superficial allure.

Not much happens in Villages, other than a whole life: Owen's progress from MIT graduate to cautious businessman, from curious boy to a man who takes ceaseless pleasure in the charms of women -- all this belies his self-description as "a bystander at life's spectacle." There are the precise, naughty similes we've come to enjoy from Updike -- no one else would describe a woman's nipples as "rabbit's noses" or a condom as a "stork-stopper." And there is the magical way in which Updike's ability to describe the mundane tasks and travails of life in glowingly vivid images imbues even the most casual musings of Villages with a warmth verging on fervor.

In a sense, what Updike is doing in this modest but exceedingly skillful book is recapitulating most of his previous fiction, from the small-town nostalgism of The Centaur to the rutting and the ruts that Rabbit Angstrom experiences in the Rabbit novels, to the hundreds of New Yorker short stories about the pleasures and strains of suburbia. It's tempting to compare the coincidence of the publication of Villages with that of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America -- these two great contemporaries having issued such different books: Updike's a small, "safe" artistic offering, Roth's a brawny, daring genre-buster. But really, both men, in their aging years, share a common vigor, an admirable refusal to slow down or conclude that literary fiction isn't as urgent an enterprise as it once was. Villages probably isn't going to sail up the best-seller lists or be championed by the Young Turk critics who, variously, want either more or less "sincerity" or formal daring in the novel, but it's the latest solidly constructed bookend to the shelf of Updike novels, and probably not the final bookend at that. Good.

Ken Tucker is the movie critic for New York magazine and pop-music critic for NPR's Fresh Air With Terry Gross.

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