I have rarely encountered fiction that so genially recounts the frailties of old age … In general the characters are flush New Englanders with children and grandchildren, who have the wealth for exotic travel and the luxury of time for reminiscence or, as Updike calls it, ‘personal archaeology.’ Hints of death and dying faintly tinge every story, but there is no pathos or urging to not go gently into that good night; there is just the realist's ironic shrug over the way things are and a healthy appreciation for the largely unrecognized heroism of facing life's decline … My Father's Tears is a self-conscious salute to a grand career of imagining and gorgeously describing our America, along with a wink of gratitude to those readers who have shared the journey.
Of these 18 stories, all but one (an odd travelogue called ‘Morocco,’ dating from 1979) were published in the last decade, and their themes and situations hark back to the author’s earliest autobiographical fiction … Here lies both the triumph and the limitation of these stories: the obsessive recollection of detail for its own sake … Best of all, though, is the knowing resignation of the final story, ‘The Full Glass,’ in which the first-person narrator, approaching 80, takes us through the reduced rituals of the old as they both savor and prepare to give up forever even the simplest animal pleasures.
Superficially, it may seem that Updike has covered this terrain before – unfulfilled parents, aging grandparents, high school reunions, wives, lovers, and children forsaken in the suburban game of musical beds, disoriented American tourists. But Updike keeps it fresh, periodically checking in on the condition not just of the self he values but on racially mixed grandchildren and post-9/11 religious beliefs … The overarching theme of Updike’s last stories is the family diaspora that is a natural but painful passage of man – a dispersal whose final stage is death but whose most effective antidote is memory.
Most of the stories are about old age; Updike here, as in the Rabbit novels, looks at the interplay between one's youth and one's final years, and in particular at the hold that the former maintains on the latter. This collection is filled with divorcees hankering for former spouses, with married people longing for past paramours and with successful, rounded people returning to the childhood towns and friends they have outgrown but still yearn for … When Updike gets it right — when the wonder of his prose, the energy of his narrative, the keenness of his eye and the rehabilitating warmth of his artistic mind are all firing — the reader is left with the sense of having encountered modern American fiction in its near-perfect state.
In a dark book—My Father's Tears is probably the bleakest of any of Updike's story collections; for all the gorgeous prose, death and the disabling indignities that are its forerunners are ubiquitous—’The Walk With Elizanne’ strikes a welcome counter-note. It scintillates with Updike's conviction, borne out in a lifetime of devotion to the writing desk, that the amassing of sharp-eyed observation can be salvational.
The stories in My Father's Tears focus on the experiences of people who are looking at the world from the vantage point of someone more or less Updike's age … Several of the characters in these stories struggle with a loss of faith, echoing a theme explored in much of Updike's fiction. The most powerful instance of apostasy is rendered in what is also the most audacious of the stories in My Father's Tears, ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ … These stories, like the Rabbit novels, are a window into the world Updike chose to inhabit and explore. They are a pleasure to read, even when the subject matter is death or the anticipation of annihilation, because they are so honestly observed and scrupulously executed.
It's an uneven and grimly literal collection of fiction that reprises — and repraises — the author's childhood, chronicles the indignities of old age, describes in nearly guidebook fashion far-off travels and lingers over detritus found in a home that sounds very much like the one Updike occupied until his death … My Father's Tears feels like a coming clean. It revolves — guiltily, it must be said — around occasions in which a narrator shows a lack of courage, a failure of understanding, a cruelness in refusing to let go of women. The whiff of confession, however, does not generate the heat of fiction's more mysterious properties. And there are other reasons this is a demoralizing book. White characters are described in full description; the rest are dark threatening smudges on the sideline.
This is a book full of reunions — with old lovers, with high school classmates, with aging friends at country clubs; and full of men casting a wistful eye on girls and women who represent a vitality long gone … It can be infuriating and even a touch macabre to read about a man reliving with his classmates jokes that date to grade school. It's in these moments where one feels that, notwithstanding his nuance, Updike has nuzzled a bit too comfortably up against the soft underbelly of American sentimentality, a gauzy, untroubled retrospect that one could fairly say he himself helped to fashion, at least in its literary manifestation. And yet, in maddeningly circular fashion, this is also one his virtues: He risks sentiment.
As this last, beguiling collection of stories bears witness, condescending to Updike as the lyricist of small satisfactions misses the power of his great, deep, subject: the pathos of American boyishness; the gap between bright expectation and experience into which the Rabbit Angstroms and the rest fall with their air of desperately bewildered ruefulness … Updike was better at the elegiac than the catastrophic. But My Father’s Tears, despite the implication of the title story, isn’t all mood indigo. Updike’s genius was for the richly relished, precisely nailed, moment; his incomparable powers of translation between what is observed and what gets fixed in memory.
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’ … 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.
In this, his final collection of short stories, Updike never breaks his composure, even though it was clear his life was winding down. The title story flirts as usual with the real details of the writer's life — his childhood in Central Pennsylvania, his departure for an Eastern college, his two marriages and, as he grew closer in age to his parents in their elderly years, accounts of their lives … There's so much quintessential Updike in this story, including the egotistical narrator and his offhanded attitude toward women and relationships. It's practically the condensed version of most of his fiction, including the ending … The 17 other stories...are the same kind of small, controlled and carefully detailed pieces, studded here and there with those flashes of stunning bits of pure writing that Updike was so skilled at.
Updike compresses the strata of a life in his delicately rendered, tremendously moving posthumous collection … From ‘Kinderszenen,’ which depicts the anxious time of smalltown late 1930s, to ‘Varieties of Religious Experience,’ in which a grandfather watches the twin towers fall, time ushers in brutal changes. With masterly assurance, Updike transforms the familiar into the mysterious.
Just as a representative Updike youngster intuits that he ‘can never be an ordinary, everyday boy,’ so do his counterparts at the far end of the aging spectrum clearly foresee their own absorption into the universal and infinite … The ache of knowing and celebrating how we’ve lived, what it all may mean and where we’re going give this final testament a beauty and gravity that crown a brilliant, enduring life’s work and legacy.