Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel

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9780375411137: Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel

The dozen short stories in John Updike's new collection revisit many of the locales of his fiction: the small Pennsylvania town of Olinger, the lonely farm to which the hero moves as an adolescent, the exurban New England of adult camaraderie and sexual mischief, the New York City of artistic ambition and taunting glamour. Love, including an old woman's for her cats and a boy's for his embattled father, exerts its spell in all twelve; the title derives from a story in which an American banjo virtuoso demonstrates his licks to an enthralled Soviet audience in the heart of the Cold War, while being hounded by the epistolary aftermath of a one-night stand in Washington, D.C.

To these tales Mr. Updike has added a novella-length sequel to his quartet of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Several old strands come at last together, and the dead man's survivors fitfully entertain his memory while pursuing their own happiness over the edge of the millennium. The place is, as before, the area of Brewer, Pennsylvania; the time, the last months of 1999.

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If John Updike had never published anything but short stories--if the novels, essays, verse, and reams of occasional prose vanished into thin air--he would still be a presence to reckon with in American letters. Having said that, it's only fair to point out that his 13th collection, Licks of Love, is one of the master's patchier efforts. He has lost none of his notorious fluency, and even the duds are enlivened by lovely stabs of perception. But in several tales ("The Women Who Got Away," "New York Girl," "Natural Color"), Updike seems perversely bent on proving his detractors right, serving up familiar narratives of adultery and '60s-era swinging. There's no reason why lust and rage shouldn't dance attendance on this randy genius's old age. But he's already written about the art of extracurricular canoodling at such length that these entries are bound to seem like retreads.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the rest of the collection is a sheer delight. "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace" explores some fascinating Oedipal outskirts, even as the narrator's first cigarette takes on a theological accent: "It was my way of becoming a human being, and part of being human is being on the verge of disgrace." In "How Was It, Really?" Updike unveils the real dirty secret of old age, which is not the persistence of erotic appetite but the inevitable, appalling failure of memory. Best of all, he returns to two of his longest-running franchises, with admirable results in both cases. "His Oeuvre" revives that Semitic doppelgänger Henry Bech for one more lap around the track, and finds the author making intermittent fun of his own fancy prose style. Harry Angstrom is, needless to say, beyond hope of resurrection. But in a 182-page novella, "Rabbit Remembered," Updike brings back his survivors for a superb, surprising curtain call. The author's present-tense notation of American life (whose paradoxical epicenter is, as always, Brewer, Pennsylvania) remains as mesmerizing as ever. And despite his death, the putative hero is everywhere, as his illegitimate daughter returns to the unwilling bosom of the Angstrom clan: "A whiff of Harry, a pale glow, an unsettling drift comes off this girl, this thirty-nine-year-old piece of evidence." Wallowing in this unexpected bonus, Updike fans should steel themselves for a single pang of regret: this is likely to be the last Rabbit he will pull from his hat. --James Marcus

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