John Updike: The Collected Stories edited by Christopher Carduff; Library of America two volumes, 976 pages for “The Collected Early Stories,” 896 pages for “Collected Later Stories,” $75 box set. For an American writer of such magnificent and inimitable gifts, John Updike had an unfortunate knack in life for running full tilt into political buzzsaws, leaving the edges of his reputation a ragged and ugly thing indeed when seen from the middle distance. On the one hand, there were feminists and fellow travelers who threw him into the bucket with other Great White Fathers of Paternalistic Sexual Entitlement – Mailer, Roth etc. On the other hand were all those who seized on allusions to golf or church or conservative politics as symptoms of fatuosity well beyond the call of duty (when, at a PEN conference, he confided his writerly love for his mailbox in the all-too-apparent manner of a New Yorker “casual,” he was widely roasted as one of the damnedest fools in the international writers’ racket.)
His too-early death from lung cancer gave his life work the gift of taking eventual precedence over all the elbow-throwing tomfoolery. What we can see now are immense mountain ranges of virtuosity – the kind that usually denote great 19th century writers with names like “James.” One range of novels, one of short stories and one of incomparable essays, among the greatest of his time.
Here, in an inevitable Library of America box set, is quite possibly the least contestable Updike achievement of them all and one largely beyond political folderol – all the masterly short stories in slightly less than 2,000 pages, beginning with “Blueberry Hill” on the radio in “Ace in the Hole” written while he was still at Harvard and ending with this majestic final paragraph ending “The Full Glass:” “The shaving mirror hangs in front of a window overlooking the sea. The sea is always full, flat as a floor. … My life-prolonging pills cupped in my left hand, I lift the glass, its water sweetened by its brief wait on the marble sink top. If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance of it be damned.” – Jeff Simon