Book Review - Rabbit returns

Updike continues exploring the complexities of family life

In these confused and disputatious times, John Updike reminds us that civility, elegance and heroic splendor are not lost in our republic. Indeed, he is evidence that we have only to look away from political operatives and into the texture of daily transactions on a human scale to find the substance of American life. His new book, Licks of Love, is a collection of 12 short stories and a novella, this last, a revisitation of the Harry Angstrom mythology from his Rabbit series.
Certainly, his created lives are, like our own, variously imbalanced, under siege, suddenly renewed and sometimes illumined from within. But Updike’s sure voice holds them together in constellations of narrative reverie. His stories have always read like transcribed dreams of real events — believable enough, but with a kind of absurd internal syncopation.
The title story is a perfect example: a virtuoso banjo player finds himself dazzling audiences during his Cold War tour of the Soviet Union; having done his part to humiliate the enemy and save the world, he returns triumphantly home, only to learn that his wife has opened the first in a stack of letters containing proof of an affair he had hoped to forget. He writes: “You can go to the dark side of the moon and back and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women manage to get together.” This could just as well be a summary of the entire Updikean program. His investigations into the contradictions and compromises of life with the opposite sex are as resourceful and supple as his reverence for the complex joys of family life. If Updike’s people seem never to find “true happiness,” they certainly do find and courageously defend the next best thing. In his universe, the tragic consequences of small choices are never arguments against an irresistible gag-line. For while Updike is smart enough to believe in stable rules for good living, he is neither a moralist nor an apologist for human weakness.
Readers of this charming, droll new collection will be pleased to discover that even at this late hour in a distinguished career, Updike takes his tales seriously without taking them hostage.