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Originally published Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'My Father's Tears': elegiac fiction by John Updike

"My Father's Tears and Other Stories," the late John Updike's last collection of fiction, is a haunting look at issues of age and mortality. Actors from A Contemporary Theater will read from a selection of Updike's short stories today, June 14, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

John Updike memorial reading

Short Stories Live

Actors from A Contemporary Theater will read from a selection of John Updike's short stories. At 4 p.m. today (6/14) at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $13/$10 for Town Hall members in advance; $15/$13 at the door. For more information call Town Hall at 206-652-4255 or go to www.townhallseattle.org.

"My Father's Tears and Other Stories"

by John Updike

Knopf, 304 pp., $25

The 18 elegiac stories that comprise the late John Updike's "My Father's Tears and Other Stories" have all been previously published — 10 in The New Yorker, all but one in the last nine years. Most of the stories are in a reflective mode. They deal wistfully with the inevitabilities of age and mortality along with adultery, divorce and illness. Teachers, financiers, homemakers, statisticians and investment advisers with full lives encounter the "increments of uncertainty" while discovering how "time consumes us." Settings range from Updike's native Pennsylvania, New England and New York to Spain, India and northern Africa.

The opening story, "Morocco," is representative of the retrospective nature of the stories. Seeking "an absolute escape to the sun" from a dreary April in England, a family of six embark on a road trip. They find themselves in Restinga with "only the whipping wind" and "a useless sun." The father recalls the experience as one of "maximum family compression," the last time the family was "molded, it seemed, forever together."

Although the title story, "My Father's Tears," comes about three-fourths of the way in the collection, it serves as the centerpiece of the volume. The 73-year-old narrator knows that no matter what distance he goes from his small hometown and family in rural Pennsylvania, he never really leaves the state. The "traditional comforts and an illusion of well-being" follow him everywhere — from his college years at Harvard to when he meets his first wife's Unitarian minister father and unwillingly admits that religious faith demands intellectual sacrifice. After his divorce, he learns that his former high-school classmates prefer his second wife because she knows where "the self [he] value[s] is stored."

One of the most telling stories and one likely destined for anthologies is "Varieties of Religious Experience."This is a powerful re-imagining of the events of 9/11 from four distinct points of view: A 64-year-old probate lawyer from Cincinnati questions his Episcopalian faith while visiting his daughter in Brooklyn during the attacks; two of the hijackers make preparations in a Florida strip bar; a bond trader labors in his cubicle before being overcome by "jet-fuel stink"; and a frequent flyer leaving Newark to see her daughter in California is abruptly awakened over a Pennsylvania field in a "surge into the maw of gravity."

Many of the remaining stories are seen through the "distorting lens of old age." In the devastatingly sardonic "Delicate Wives," two people once involved in a "concealed affair" meet years later. The narrator of "The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe" is depressed in Spain when he contemplates his life contracting, shrinking and ending. "Personal Archaelogy" reveals the sedimentary layers of a man's past as he details the "mystery of his own transient existence."Everything seems downhill in "Blue Light" as "life runs out of next times for a retired investment broker." And the life insurance salesman in the closing story, "The Full Glass," realizes that the "routines of living ... wear you down" even as he recalls an affair that "made [his] blood feel carbonated."

The evocative nature of the stories in "My Father's Tears" echo the melancholy of Chekhov, the romanticism of Wordsworth and the mournful spirit of Yeats. Whether it is remembering the past or searching for the indomitable spirit of the future, the stories coalesce into a haunting collage of heart-wrenching narratives.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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