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Villages by John Updike


Rating: (Recommended)


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John Updike’s unique voice returns in his latest novel, Villages. In this offering, readers enter the life of Owen Mackenzie, currently of Haskells Crossing, and learn of his slow sexual coming of age, a first marriage that led him to other partners, his pioneering work with computers, and the richness of his retirement in this village community and in the arms of his second wife, Julia. I thought back to reading Couples thirty years ago, and appreciated how the richness of Updike’s writing has matured with the writer. In Villages, Updike’s character development is robust, his understanding of the depth of feelings in youth and old age shines, and the creation of the village provides at once a backdrop and a metaphor for the whole story.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter iii, “The Husband,” pp. 34-39:


When Owen awakes and discovers that Julia is out of bed, he goes forth in search of her, the two of them enacting semi-comic routines in which they consciously—as if this will placate its advance—flirt with senility.

“Where are you, sweetness?” he calls.

“Here, darling,” she answers, from some far-off room; but the deteriorating quality of his hearing is such that he cannot tell if she is upstairs or downstairs.

“Where’s here?” he shouts, growing irritated.

Her hearing too is not what it had once been, nor her need to respond to him. She falls silent, like a car radio in a tunnel. What a child she still is, he thinks to himself, to believe that “here” explained everything, as if she is the center of the universe. How amazingly selfish!

Still, without being selfish she could not have given him what he so much desired at the time they met: a new center for his life. Spotting self-love in the other had been their point de depart. His first wife had been relatively selfless, as if her self were something she had absent-mindedly left in another room, like a pair of reading glasses.

Julia may have wandered outdoors, in her flip-flops. She loves the outdoors, site of weather and of traffic. In summer she wanders into her garden, beginning to pull weeds, in her nightie; its hem becomes soaked with dew, her flip-flops get muddy. He has to go downstairs in his pajamas to win a response. He even paddles out in his bare feet onto the asphalt driveway, not hot enough to burn in the early morn­ing. During two decades of residence here, in this or that small emergency (a car door left ajar and the inner lights devouring battery juice, or a newspaper carelessly thrown into bushes as the delivery man careened around the circle in the pre-dawn dark, or a watering hose absent-mindedly left running when they went to bed, its sound audible in their bedroom like a murmuring heart), Owen has trod barefoot on the macadam in a range of weathers, even in some fresh inches of snow, and found that for a few steps almost anything could be borne, snow and heat imparting to dulled, shoe-bound nerves an invigorating elemental shock.

He wants to share a dream with her. He often wakes with such a desire, though Julia long ago established a consider­able lack of interest in his nocturnal brain activity. It is important to strike in the first waking minutes, before the dream’s delicate structure is crushed under humdrum reality’s weight.

Last night he dreamed that, standing on the lawn on the sea side of their white house, he saw her go off, in her black BMW, on one of her innumerable errands or escapes to Boston. He saw her car, as shiny as patent leather, rush by and, immediately after it, his shabby maroon Mitsubishi follow, driven not by him but by Julia again, her pale profile preoccupied. His first wife, Phyllis, had also held her head in this tense, eye-catching way when behind the wheel— tipped slightly back as if in anticipation of the engine’s exploding.

In his dream he saw nothing peculiar in the duplicated Julias, but felt something headlong and dangerous in her speed. Slow down, darling, slow down. Now several cars were coming up the driveway, which is too narrow for automo­biles to pass. To cope with this difficulty, the men driving the cars conducted unprecedented maneuvers—one Volks­wagen Bug, that fabled, notoriously unsafe ‘sixties vehicle of counterculture rebellion and conspicuous thrift, backed right down off the driveway onto a grassy ramp that Owen had never noticed before. Another vehicle pulled a clatter­ing trailer; he realized that these men were his weekly lawn crew. But it wasn’t as simple as that; when he came back into the house, a family of three Chinese, identically blobby, like inflated dolls or swollen gray ticks, were sitting in his living room, silent but expectant. They, and the lawn crew— morbidly tan men who smoke cigarettes while they noisily ride their mowers around and around, missing many cor­ners and scalping many a high spot—appeared to assume, wrongly, that in Julia’s absence (she has gone to Boston, in duplicate) he will know what to do, what courtesies to extend, what orders to give. He was the owner, the host, the proprietor, the boss—a role he has never quite grown into. Born young, he has stayed young: a charmed life has kept him so. Nonplussed, he woke up.

He wants to describe all this to Julia, to make her laugh. He wants to discuss with her the dream’s possible connec­tions to real life. A few years ago, they visited China for three weeks—another senility-fending maneuver. All the couples they know in Haskells Crossing take trips, in the quick-closing window between retirement and death. Like children trading bubble-gum cards they swap the names of restaurants and hotels, museums, and temples that must not be missed, local guides who must be sought out and con­sulted. The whole globe has been colonized by Haskells Crossing and its companion community, Haven-by-the-Sea, sending out pilgrims who tread the same paths, in one another’s footsteps, eating in the same restaurants, using the same guides, even encountering the same memorably persistent souvenir-saleswomen in the shadow of the Great Wall. Also, Owen’s career in computers has given him many Asian-American colleagues, some of them as opaquely expectant and uncooperative as the figures in his dream. Come to think of it, on a business trip to Chicago last winter he and Julia saw, in the Art Institute, an enig­matic installation of identically smiling, gray spray-painted, pajama-clad artificial Chinamen standing around the mar­ble railings of the majestic central staircase.

Owen imagines Julia laughing with him as he tests these possible connections to the imaginary Oriental visitors, who had been so self-contained, so non-nonplussably pleased in the Mackenzies’ living room, which had been reconfigured into a largely empty room with a sloping floor. Was the slope an oneiric reference to slant eyes, or to the slanting floor of the Scheherazade back in Willow, where he had watched many a Charlie Chan movie?

He wants to share this dream especially because it was, under its discontinuities, somehow all about Julia. His desire that she not come to ruin in the driveway; his heart leaping in fear that she might slip on wet leaves and fatally crash. So many of his dreams are not about her, drawing heavily, as on the raft of the mattress they drift together through their private universes, upon a fraught territory left behind twenty-five years ago—the domestic contusions and commensurate griefs in the town of Middle Falls, Connecticut, where Phyllis had played, with a dramatically understated affect, the role of his wife. Often in his dreams the wife-figure is ambiguous, misty-faced, and could be either woman. Phyllis, a stately dirty-blonde, had been taller, retaining from her student days a certain bohemian insouciance, and Julia, a compact, long-lashed brunette, with controlled passages of frosting in her sleek coiffure, is snappier in her dress and in her way of moving: but both acquire in his dreams a recessive, generic wifeliness.

Falls. Fragility. If an intruding stranger or psychiatrist asked him why he loved Julia so, Owen might have dredged up an erotic memory generated, a few years ago, in the con­valescent aftermath of her breaking her leg—one bone in her ankle and another in her foot—while hurrying to pass him on the back stairs. He had felt her, like a pursuing predator, breathing impatiently behind him; then he heard the sharp monosyllable “Oh!” as she flipped into the air, having slipped on the narrowest part of the triangular, car­peted treads in her new, smooth-soled Belgians. She flew through the air for a second, hurtling past him in the fore­shortened manner of an angel plunging earthward with its announcement, and then she landed on the hail carpet, lying there motionless. He hurried to her with a thudding chest. A sudden disaster on life’s stage: what was his role? Julia softly pronounced, while her second husband knelt anxiously above her “I heard two breaks. Pop-pop.” This strict accountancy in the very pit of emergency was just like her: efficient, no-nonsense. As she lay there, showing her hushed profile, and he knelt helpless beside her, swallow­ing the sudden enormity of this domestic event, she asked, “Could you take off my sweater? Gently.” She added, “I’m hot. I think I might faint.”

“What shall we do?” he asked her.

She was silent, as if she had fainted.

In charge by default, he told her, “We’ve got to get you to the hospital. Can you hop, holding on to my shoul­der?” They made it to the car, to the emergency room of the local hospital, where a crude cast was fashioned, and the next day to Massachusetts General Hospital, an hour away in Boston.

For the month afterwards, they did not make love, though he demonstrated love, in his own eyes, by bringing her meals he prepared, by learning to do the laundry and the cooking, and by playing backgammon and watching public television with her at night. After the month, they agreed they should try sex again, though she would have to lie safely still beneath him, and he must be careful of her mending bones. At Mass. General she had been prescribed not a plaster cast but, in the latest therapeutic fashion, a plastic boot—space-tech in feeling, overlapping blue and gray with a ridged sole curved like a chair rocker. It could be briefly removed but had to stay on during something as strenuous as fucking. He tried to hover above her, on his elbows and knees, sparing her as much of his weight as he could, and to his grateful amazement felt her rise to him, in her excitement, quicker than usual; she ground her pubic bone against his decisively and they came together— gemlike dragonflies coupling in air. Breathless afterwards, Julia stared up at him from the pillow with that cloudy face of satisfied desire which puts a man, briefly, right with the universe, all debts honored, all worries unmasked as negligible.

Pick any sentence in Villages and discover that the words Updike chooses are pitch perfect. The dialogue always rings true, descriptions are complete and never tedious, and the alternating time periods provide us with the right exposition at the right time. There’s a gentle caring, especially between Owen and Julia, that marks Villages with a delicacy that lasts long after the last page is turned.

Steve Hopkins, November 26, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the December 2004 issue of Executive Times

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