Hub Kid Bids Fans Adieu
In 1960, when John Updike, a lifelong Red Sox fan, was only 27, he wrote lovingly of Ted Williams’s last day at bat in "Hub Kid Bids Fans Adieu." Talking about Williams’s life (like Updike, Williams was not a born and bred "Hub Kid") as “Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor,” Updike concludes , “So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”
Updike, another hub kid, despite his nostalgia for his small town Pennsylvania childhood, the town and friends which have deteriorated, has also quit. Lung cancer, the product of those first cigarettes sold him at the train station when he was 15, has felled him. But like Williams, Updike left us with two home runs, a book of short stories, MY FATHER’S TEARS AND OTHER STORIES and ENDPOINT AND OTHER POEMS.
“Morocco,” the first story, the only one written before 2000, is about an American family on vacation. Everything goes wrong. Plans and hotels go awry. Updike, the autobiographical narrator, remembers, “We had achieved, in Morocco, maximum family compression and could only henceforth disperse. Growing up, leaving home, watching your parents divorce—all in the decade since, have happened. But on a radiant high platform of the Eiffel Tower I felt us still molded, it seemed, forever together.” The rest of the stories talk about children far away when families are no longer compressed.
The other stories, written in Updike’s last decade, mainly hone in on men who are aging, hate its encroachments, but know it’s better than the alternative, which he fears—yet know it’s coming. Older possessions, like aging small towns, are a comfort—and a rebuke—a reminder that nothing ever stays the same. In Morocco and Paris, the family belongs. In these last stories, age has “islanded” the ironically named Fairchild as well as the author of the stories. Travelers no longer belong where they travel—even when, like David Kern, they try to go back where they came from—and can’t find their way. His father-in-law “moved among us…like a planet exempt from the law of gravitational attraction.”
In the title story, “My Father’s Tears,” the autobiographical narrator learns his father has died suddenly while he was in Paris with his first wife: “She put her arms around me in the bed and told me, ‘Cry.’ Though I saw the opportunity, and the rightness of seizing it, I don’t believe I did. My father’s tears had used up mine.”
In the stories, no one weeps tears except for words of loss. But in “Endpoint,” the poems written on each birthday from March 18th, 2002 till the last one en route to a hospice in Danvers, Massachusetts cry out in anguish because they feel the end coming. After the birthday poem of 2007, there are poems from his hospital bed at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Referring to our “wastrel lives,” he looks askance at his books as “the piled produce of bald ambition.”
Noting “Age I must, but die I would rather not,” seeing himself as “an Adam being nibbled like old ice,” looking at “A life poured into words—apparent waste/intended to preserve the thing consumed/For who, in that unthinkable future/when I am dead, will read?” he wonders what it was all about, what his life achieved. Always haunted “How not to think of death?, “ the writing helps. He calls, “Be with me, words, a little longer; you/have given me my quitclaim in the sun.”
The words of “Endpoint, the last ones he wrote before the trip to the hospice, give Updike his quitclaim. Painfully marvelous, they cry out for respite while knowing, as the last poem in the series cries out in an echo of the 23rd psalm, “Surely—magnificent, that “surely”--/goodness and mercey shall follow me all/the days of my life, my life, forever.”
Tucked away in the end of the book under “Poems, Light and Personal,” among light poems about Monica and a poem “To a Well-connected Mouse” is “Requiem,” the poem that says it all in farewell:
“It came to me the other day:
“Were I to die, no one would say,
“’Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
“Of promise—depths unplumable.’
“Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
“Will greet my overdue demise;
“The wide response will be, I know,
“’I thought he died a while ago.’
“For life’s a shabby subterfugre,
“An death is real, and dark, and huge,
“The shock of it will register
“Nowhere but where it will occur.”
Like Ted Williams, John Updike’s poetry knows when to quit. We can only wish that this transplanted hub kid had not quit so soon.