The Old Guys of American Literature
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The old guys are at it again. Although this fall’s book offerings are rich and varied—including big novels from Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence), Marilynne Robinson (Home), Clyde Edgerton (The Bible Salesman), Ron Rash (Serena), and Toni Morrison (A Mercy)—two novels sure to get a good deal of attention are John Updike’s sequel to his The Witches of Eastwick, The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. In some ways, both Updike and Roth are our cultural archivists, capturing the waxing and waning of particular moments in American time and space. Situating their characters in settings as diverse as middle-class eastern Pennsylvania, upper crust Connecticut, or the squalid streets of Newark, the writers have carved out their own geographical territory of American culture in much the way that Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Frank Norris, and Richard Ford did before them. In fact, any new book by either Roth or Updike is a major event, usually worthy of celebration, and these new books offer us an excuse to celebrate their signal contributions to American literature.
Tuesday, September 16, has been declared “Indignation Day” across America. That evening, Roth will come into the living rooms of selected bookstores across the country, via virtual broadcast, to discuss his new novel. Roth’s new novel is a coming-of age tale whose genius mirrors the brilliant novels of his early career. In 1951, Marcus Messner flees his father’s steadily debilitating dementia and the overwhelming constraints of family life in Newark, New Jersey, to the greener and more pastoral setting of Winesburg College in Ohio. After years of working in his father’s butcher shop where he learned to do everything well no matter how much he hated it, he steps into a Kafkaesque setting where such a lesson is useless in the face of the demands of the college’s authority figures. After encounters with arrogant and lazy roommates who won’t allow him to study, confrontations with the college dean, and the heartbreak of a failed sexual affair, Marcus learns that he can best survive various challenges in his life—even the book’s most surprising challenge—by acting indignantly in the face of them. Roth mediates on love, the nature of human sanity, and death. The ripping black humor and the pathos of Indignation recall the best of Roth’s recent work, such as Everyman and Exit Ghost.
John Updike is the closest thing that America has to a man of letters. In addition to his novels and short stories, Updike’s occasional essays on art and other topics grace the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and provide us with a glimpse of his creative genius. He’s an elegant writer whose prolific output over the years has been uneven yet admirable for its eloquence and its wide-ranging intelligence. Since Terrorist, though, Updike’s fiction has been disappointing. His latest, The Widows of Eastwick, continues that trend. Twenty-four years after they flew into our lives, those audacious and lovable girls of Eastwick (The Witches of Eastwick) are back. Now widowed and living in various parts of the country, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, get together for a return trip to the Rhode Island village that they haunted so many years ago and that was the scene of one of their most murderous acts. Once they arrive, they find the welcome mat rolled up and the village’s citizens angry, bewildered, anxious, and vengeful at their return. As they meet up with old lovers, children and friends, the three soon find themselves tangled in a mysterious and magical web of fateful events that ruins their trip and alters their lives forever. Like most of his recent novels—with the exception of Terrorist—this latest is an unsatisfying rumination on the loss of sexual vitality and death. As elegant a writer as he is, Updike has never been able to create fully drawn female characters who have vital lives and personalities of their own; they are always receptacles of male fantasies, even in this novel where their characters should be stronger and independent. Because of this shortcoming of Updike’s, The Witches of Eastwick was one his most disappointing and tepid novels. The movie, with Jack Nicholson as the horny paramour of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon, was one of the worst movies of all time; it’s the only time I’ve ever walked out of a movie. Of course, fans of The Witches of Eastwick who have always wondered what happened to the trio will want to read this novel, and many readers will want to own any Updike novel, no matter how bad, because of his stature as an American novelist.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, 2008)
Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Bible Salesman (Little, Brown 2008)
Serena (Ecco, 2008)
A Mercy (Knopf, 2008)
The Widows of Eastwick (Knopf, 2008)
Indignation (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.