Monday, November 08, 2004


Villages by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf. 321 pages. $25.00

There is surely no writer alive who can gush over a vagina as effusively as John Updike; every joy-trail is sacred, unique, and fires up his prose with an extra boost of rocket fuel. In his classic short work "One's Neighbor's Wife," in the collection Hugging the Shore, the pubic similes pour out like a flood-tide: "My pussy is the color of earth, of fire, of air shuddering on the vein of a rock by the side of a stream, of fine metals spun to a curly tumult..."

That was over twenty years ago; in his latest novel, Updike proves that at 72 he can still fly to Mars and back on a snootful of musk. "Two gauzy waves met in a coppery crest down the middle of her mount," we read of Faye, her dampness "less of a sauce, more of a glaze," her vulvic grip having "something infantile about it, something heartbreaking, like a child's sly, hopeful question." There's also Stacy, with a "wet goatee between her skinny thighs," Alissa with the "infinitely soft, furry, moist socket," its "livid wrinkles looking like lava folds," and Phyllis with her "mucous warmth." One thinks of gynecological lab reports as written by Eugene Delacroix.

Where Updike's men are self-involved, dick-centered jerks, he always approaches women on his knees: "Husbands are superfluous, dutiful adjuncts to the busy interaction of women." "Women are shining moon-creatures, who hurt us when they withhold themselves, and again when they don't." "How little men deserve the beauty and mercy of women!" "Though we speak of a man possessing a woman it is she who takes possession."

Loving physical details and hard-sell, condescending sensitivity; yes, we're in Updikeville, where the field of middle-class adultery can never be plowed up too often. The book is a recitation of the author's cliches; not exactly boring, but it does induce a rather high degree of fatigue. It's Updike on autopilot, but it does actually land somewhere.

The bulk of the story can be dispensed with easily: it's a series of florid sex scenes from the life of Updike's typical protagonist, Owen Mackenzie, a successful software developer in the early years of computers, and an aging philanderer. Married for the past twenty years to his second wife Julia, his memories focus on what he's learned from both the women in his life up to this point and the places he's lived -- more former than latter, as the title conceit proves rather awkward.

An only child who has been babied from birth, Owen has a need to be coddled and taken care of that makes him attractive to women, who always seem to be there when he needs them. The key relationship for most of his life is with Phyllis, a math whiz he meets when they're both at M.I.T., and a character who grows in interest as the book goes along. Together they settle down for a long-running marriage of conventional suburban hypocrisy: she raises the kids, he brings home the bacon and bags babes on the side. Every woman Owen meets seems to know what he wants and it doesn't take much work for them to hand it over. (One cute coworker even gives him her panties beneath a stack of business papers.) The sex throughout is plentiful, occasionally icky ("his semen puddled above her breast like an explosion of snot") and repetitive: Owen is "thumpingly erect," or has a "thumping climax" or receives the "blood-thump of release."

The book's own consummation is a long time coming: after 250-some pages of friction, it gains conflict, and it soars. As the Mackenzie marriage literally crashes and burns, we find ourselves back in the company of the great modern American novelist of marriage, the master who wrote the four Rabbit books, Marry Me, and the Maples stories. Owen, the perpetual adolescent and lucky beneficiary of sexual escapades which took little or no effort to get prodded along, now finds himself having to choose between two women, Julia and Phyllis, both of whom want to save him from the other. Painful decision, painful consequences, and Updike's eye for the effects of divorce on domestic life is as pointed as ever: "To be an adult is to be a killer. Pacifists and non-combatants are just fooling themselves, letting others do the dirty work." To be an adult is to be a killer -- can you imagine forgetting those nine words now that you've read them?

More than that, Updike's perennial religious vision brings this lumbering story into focus. Updike provides Owen with his own thoughts on sex and faith, and it cooks up the kind of dark night of the soul American fiction doesn't serve anymore: "At three in the morning, our brains churn within the self, trying to get out of what we know to be a sinking ship. But jumping out of the self is not a Western skill. The walls of the skull stay solid, sealing us in with our fears."

I hardly expected to finish this succession of dreary porn tableaux reminded of just how sharp, wise and truthful this writer can be. Villages is a disappointment and a blessing; it's a brilliant misfire.

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