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March 17, 1988 - Image 69

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-03-17

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Midge surviving Sarah's final letter to him:
"And what are your snobby ... neurosur-
geon friends going to say when Midge in
one of those lurid loose splashy dresses she
wears to confuse the weight issue breaks
into her shrill giggle and asks the host if
there's a little-girls' room ...?" This is spite
as a fine art.
Secret handshake: Updike isn't above a lit-
tle spite on his own behalf. Book reviewers
Rhoda Koenig of New York magazine and
Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic, who
both panned "Roger's Version," may feel no
friendlier toward "S." when they hit the
part about "Rhoda Adams and Phoebe
Koenig," Arhat disciples caught "intravag-

inally smuggling cocaine across the border
at Nogales." The novel's substratum of"in"
jokes (an overpriced dentist named Dr. Po-
dhoretz) and hat-tippings (Sarah's love of
hawthorn trees) artfully undermines our
trust in the narrative. This sort of pre-emp-
tive deconstruction is the secret handshake
of postmodern fiction. Updike may be the
last of the great New Englanders, but he
also hankers-see the stories in his 1979
collection, "Problems and Other Stories"-
to hang out with the Donald Barthelmes. In
"S." he gets to have it both ways.
When Updike uses such mildly metafic-
tional techniques to distance the reader
from the story, he's often called "chilly"

(Koenig) or "self-indulgent" (Adams). But
consider the last sentence of "S." in which
Sarah, wealthy, warm and enlightened,
still longs for her wintry home and cold
husband, and catches herself listening for
the sound of "the garage door sliding up, in
obedience to its own inner eye." Without
that final astringent joke on those seeking
to become (as the Buddha said) lamps unto
themselves, the scene would be a mere tear-
jerker. But to dry tears in the very process
of jerking them is a more complicated
achievement-and one that Updike's un-
sentimental New England forebears would
not have despised.

Two Books With 'the Buzz'

How do books get "the
buzz," that prepublication
groundswell of anticipation
that usually means some-
thing good is coming? Well,
generally it happens because
an editor, and then a publish-
ing house, and then trade pub-
lications get excited about
what they've read. There are
generally one or two books
each season that provoke such
a response, and this spring
they are The Mysteries of Pitts-
burgh (297 pages. Morrow.
$16.95) by Michael Chabon
and Tupelo Nights (252pages. At-
lantic Monthly Press. $1795)
by John Ed Bradley. Fortu-
nately, both these first novels
live up to their buzz.
"The Mysteries of Pitts-
burgh" describes an awk-
ward and turbulent summer

in the life of Art Bechstein,
pampered son of a widowed
gangster. Finished with all
the requirements for gradua-
tion from college in Pitts-
burgh except for a term pa-
per on Freud, Bechstein gets
trapped in a sexual tug of
war between a bohemian
young woman named Phlox
and a cosmopolitan younggay
named Arthur Lecomte-and
in a psychological face-off be-
tween his father, who lives in
Washington, D.C., and a char-
ismatic local thug named
Cleveland. For the first time,
Bechstein must think about
who he is and what he wants.
Chabon writes boldly, and
sometimes his overgenerous
prose implodes, sending de-
pendent clauses tumbling.
But most of the time it pays


io-4P D


A Gothic story with raw passion: Author John Ed Bradley

off, as in this insight: "I saw
that I'd been mistaken when I
thought of myself as a Wall,
because a wall stands be-
tween, and holds apart, two
places, twoworlds, whereas, if
anything, I was nothing but a
portal, ever widening, along a
single obscure corridor that
ran all the way from my moth-
er and father to Cleveland,
Arthur, and Phlox, from the
beautiful Sunday morning on
which my mother had aban-
doned me, to the unimagina-
ble August that now, for the
first time, began to loom. And
a wall says no; a portal doesn't
say anything."
Hopeless love: John Ed Brad-
ley takes a more conventional
tack in "Tupelo Nights." His
hero, John Girlie, is an ex-
LSU football star who has
come home to live with his
mother in Old Field, La. Gir-
lie's father abandoned them
when he was nine, and his

mother still feels the after-
shock. She clings desperately
to her son and feels threat-
ened to her neurotic core
when he falls hopelessly in
love with an obsessive young
woman who frequently visits
the grave of her dead infant
son, even though it's been
some two yea-s since he died
in his crib.
"Tupelo Nights" has a fa-
miliar ring. This is another
Gothic story about a South-
ern man struggling to define
his masculinity and grap-
pling with the mistakes of
others in the past. As John
Girlie's mother tells him,
"When will you learn that
it's never over and done
with?" But the raw passion of
Bradley's richly told tale
overcomes its familiarity. He
shows us that love, when mis-
guided, has the power to
damn as well as bless.

An awkward and turbulent summer: Author Michael Chabon


APRIL 1988


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