For sheer technical dexterity and joy in the English language, few writers can match American novelist John Updike. His sentences have the predatory grace of cobras, while his eye for detail, which really amounts to a lust for the sensuous, is as keen as any detective’s. The 60-year-old, Massachusetts-based author is also unflaggingly prolific. His latest novel, Memories of the Ford Administration, is his 16th, and he has 25 other titles to his credit, including collections of poetry, short fiction and critical essays. Like most of those books, Memories of the Ford Administration revels in the light, ironic touch—a hallmark that has led some critics to call Updike superficial. But Updike is superficial only in the way that Mozart is, in that he
MEMORIES OF THE FORD ADMINISTRATION
By John Updike
(Random House, 371 pages, $29)
finds it impossible to suppress his own felicity. Memories has its tragic moments, and its heroes find their share of suffering. But beneath their unhappiness, something playful goes on making its skilful, irrepressible music.
The narrator of Memories, Alf Clayton, is a typical Updike protagonist, a white, middleclass American male with sex on the brain. His story takes the form of a memoir written to a New England historical association that has asked him for recollections of life under the administration of Gerald Ford, president from 1974 to 1977. Alf recalls a time when he taught history at a small New England girls’ college, and lived with his wife and three children in a comfortable, crowded house strewn with books and cats. Alf’s mistress was a colleague’s wife, the dark-eyed Genevieve.
After their affair starts, he leaves his family to live in a bachelor apartment, awaiting the day when their divorces come through and he can marry the woman he believes will make,
as he blithely puts it, “the perfect wife.”
Alf’s foolish yet somehow lovable innocence is summed up in that word “perfect.” Falling in love is a chronic condition for such men, and makes them set impossible expectations. In most respects, Alf is a clear and canny observer, but when it comes to Genevieve, he can think of nothing but the great sex they have. Indeed, sex is a kind of substitute for relationships in the novel: Alf would rather know (and describe) a woman’s body in the most intimate detail than have a conversation with her. Recalling a casual fling with Wendy Wadleigh, another colleague’s wife (he is unfaithful to Genevieve, too), he waxes eloquent for several pages about exactly what they do in bed, playfully emphasizing his own discomfort with female anatomy.
The detail, humor and candor of such passages are part of Updike’s civilizing of the sexual act. For all its apparent sexual freedom, North American society is still puritanical, more ill-at-ease with intimate physicality than it is usually willing to admit. Updike’s novels are, in their way, a battle cry against squeamishness and sexual awkwardness, although their characters sometimes share those very qualities.
Alf s unfaithfulness to Genevieve leads to his losing her. His pain is effectively portrayed, particularly in the novel’s bittersweet last scene, when Alf skis alone down a mountain mournfully singing the Beatles’ song Yesterday at the top of his lungs. His loss mirrors the unhappy love affair of the book’s other protago-
nist, James Buchanan, the American president who served just before Abraham Lincoln. For years, Alf has been struggling to write about Buchanan, a little-remembered figure who tried to prevent the United States from slipping into civil war. Seen by history as a spineless compromiser (he wanted to let southerners keep their slaves), Buchanan, in Alf’s opinion, was a humane, gifted man who tried heroically to avert bloodshed.
Buchanan was also America’s only bachelor president. Many years before, he had been engaged to a beautiful young woman, Ann Coleman, who died in tragic circumstances. Alf becomes obsessed by their tale, and turns his account of Buchanan’s life into a historical novel whose chapters alternate with the memoirs of his own.
Updike presents Alf’s attempt at fiction with a humorous, old-fashioned stiltedness, through which a moving tale still manages to emerge. It soon becomes clear why Alf is so deeply attracted to Buchanan. Both men are compromisers, prone to hesitation rather than swift and brutal action. Both fail to get what they want most. But Buchanan’s story is the more tragic one. Its darkness lends a weight to Updike’s novel that puts contemporary America, with its hectic materialism and selfish pursuit of pleasure, in a rather unflattering light.
Memories of the Ford Administration sprawls sideways more earnestly than it surges forward. That waywardness is one of the pleasures in reading Updike, whose fine and nimble
mind has a good deal to say about the culture of the 1970s, academic pretension and the sadness of growing old. But when necessary, he can also write with dramatic directness. When Genevieve confronts her lover with his infidelity, Alf’s evasiveness is both painful and hilarious.
Like anyone who wants to eat his cake and have it too, Alf is fundamentally immature: a
perfect symbol for an era when hedonism and greed became increasingly permissible. Still, for all his faults, Alf is sympathetic. That is the rub. It is difficult to read Updike’s outstanding novel without experiencing an unsettling complicity in the daily betrayals and compromises of modem life.
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