Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Centaur by John Updike

As my father and I strode along the pavement that divided the school side lawn from Hummel's alley, a little whirlwind sprang up before us and led us along. Leaves long dead and brittle as old butterfly wings, an aqua candy wrapper, flecks and dust and seed-sized snips of gutter chaff all hurried in a rustling revolution to our eyes; a distinctly circular invisible presence outlined itself on the walk. It danced from one margin of grass to another and sighed its senseless word; my instinct was to halt but my father kept striding. His pants flapped, something sucked my ankles. I closed my eyes. When I looked behind us, the whirlwind was nowhere to be seen.

In the school we parted. A student, I was held by regulations to this side of the wire-reinforced doors. He pushed through and walked down the long hall, his head held high, his hair fluffed from the removal of his blue knit cap, his heels pounding the varnished boards. Smaller and smaller he grew along their perspective; at the far door he became a shadow, a moth, impaled on the light he pressed against. The door yielded; he disappeared. With a grip of sweat, terror seized me.

John Updike passed away a month ago; though I could try I do not think I would be able to make a better encomium than any of the hundreds that have already been published. Slate published a slew of them, including what I thought was a pretty incoherent one by John Irving, and a tangential one by Christopher Hitchens. The best are a series of shorter obituaries that Slate published together; among my favorites is editor Anne Fadiman's, whose piece ends simply, "Can it really be that John Updike will never write another sentence?" Should one of my favorite authors die tomorrow, I might lament that they will never write a book, but true to Fadiman's sentiment, it's Updike's sentences that seem to leave the deepest hollow: miniature masterpieces like Rabbit Angstrom moving along the street like a shark, or dreaming of his own immortality, or Peter Caldwell watching his father disappear, shrinking to a "moth... impaled on the light he pressed against."

In his obituary on Slate, Steely Dan founder Donald Fagen notes David Foster Wallace's protest that Updike's characters are all veiled portraits of himself, ""incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous," and chauvinistic. But The Centaur ought to put that notion to rest, because its protagonist, George Caldwell, is defined by a selflessness that is almost nauseating. Caldwell is modeled after Chiron, the centaur and great teacher of myth who was accidentally hit by a poisoned arrow. Plagued by the wound, he begged Zeus to die, and that by doing so he might redeem the sin of Prometheus, who had long ago stolen fire from the gods. Frequently in the narrative Updike switches from Caldwell to Chiron without warning, at one point depicting him as a modern-day schoolteacher and the next an ancient demigod.

In fact, everyone in the book has a mythological counterpart: Peter, George's son, is Prometheus, who is deeply embarrassed by his father's selflessness, though he doesn't realize the depth and sincerity of his father's sacrifice. A drunk is Dionysius, the principal is Zeus--and so on and so on, all cross-indexed in the back.

A classicist might have fun trying to identify the second identity of each character, but I think that the book ultimately suffers by this gimmick, which would have been less muddled without the mythological veneer Updike imposes on it. As in the Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike dots The Centaur with moments of unparalleled prose, but here I am left wondering to what they all add up. The novelty of this kind of modernism was really exhausted with Joyce; here, where he would imbue the myth with heart and pathos, Updike too often creates a distraction from the novel.

Of course, much is required from greatness and Updike's less successful books are still better than most, and when the guessing-game is ignored, a pithy and powerful book remains: The plot is thin, following Caldwell and his son over a stretch of three days where they are prevented from returning home by car trouble and snow. Caldwell would do anything for Peter, but it is unclear what there is to be done, and Peter is increasingly resentful of what he sees as his father's weak nature. Caldwell is Chiron, who wants nothing more to give himself for others, and by extension is also a commentary on the nature of Christ.

At any rate, perhaps it would be fitting to say that Caldwell has as much of Updike, who gave of himself in scores and scores of books, in him as Rabbit Angstrom, whose selfishness and audacity are secondary only to his humanity.

Also: This is the 600th post on this blog! Hooray!


Padfoot said...

It all sounds very interesting...I picked up this book at half price for about 40 cents, just to have it, but I never knew it actually had the Greek mythology aspect to it. Great post, now I want to read it!

Christopher said...


Jim said...

Let's cut to the chase. A lot of fetishists out there, such as myself, don't have time to read your entire review.

Quickly: Is this book about the shady sex-lives of horse people or not?

Christopher said...

Jim: Yes.