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My Father's Tears

This final collection of short stories from John Updike makes a fitting coda to his career.

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“If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.” Those are the last words of the last short story in John Updike’s just published final collection, My Father’s Tears, and it’s hard not to read them as a resounding coda to his remarkable career.

Updike, who died at age 76 this past January, elegantly conveyed, over the course of 50 years, in more than 50 volumes of stories, poems, novels, and essays, what it is to be an educated, thinking, feeling – and, finally, aging – northeastern American male in the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

“The Full Glass,” like most of the preceding 17 stories in “My Father’s Tears,” is elegiac in tone. It is narrated by an old man who finds inordinate satisfaction in having a full glass of water on his sink-top, at the ready for his morning and evening “life-prolonging pills.” This leads him to search his nearly 80 years, “trying to locate in my life other moments of that full-glass feeling.”

He unearths several memories of disproportionate pleasure, including talking his way out of a traffic violation during an out-of-town tryst with a lover who “made my blood feel carbonated,” and his annual ritual of stringing Christmas lights up his flagpole to suggest an invisible tree.

“The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” one of several tales involving post-retirement foreign travel, also describes an unexpected source of pleasure. Martin Fairchild, thrown to the street when his wife’s purse is snatched in Seville, ends up feeling not more vulnerable, but more alive: “Why was this unlucky event – being mugged and injured in a foreign land – so pleasing to Fairchild? It was, he supposed, the element of contact. In his universe of accelerating expansion, he enjoyed less and less contact.”

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