The Widows of Eastwick was John Updike’s last novel, a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick published a quarter century earlier. Most reviews of both I’ve read find the latter work a let-down compared to the bubbly mischief of the former, which made much of his reputation. Well, I never read the first, and can’t seem to find it either, so I can’t make any comparison but have a strong suspicion those reviews might be right.
The Widows, it seems to me, is a last, age-warped window on the best and the worst Updike the novelist had to offer.
Of the forty novels he penned, I’ve read perhaps a fifth, and not one of those I read could qualify as an indisputable masterpiece. Updike couldn’t build a decent plot for shit. When he almost succeeded, what he filleted it with anyway was the sexual mores of suburban middle-class America at bedroom carpet texture level, with distracted references to the weather outside and the times that were – an exercise dangerously close to mainstream romance. For breadth and height and duplicitous sophistication on similar concerns, give me prick-gazing Philip Roth any time.
The Widows’ construction is almost couldn’t-care-less amateurish. The first part is a shameless recycling of travel notes, some of which were already of use in his previous miscarriage of a novel, Terrorist, presumably to fill us in on the three witches’ past and give them geriatric credentials. I forced myself to read through those dreary group tour reports ‒ everything I hate ‒ as they weren’t leavened with any pinch of humour, even though humour is present elsewhere in the book. The second part, in Eastwick, is coherent enough in its whimsicality, including its grotesque coda of gore and flabby naked flesh. And the last part, with its compulsory weird sex scene, telegraphed feel-good twists, nonsensical scientific verbiage, and incoherent turnarounds of at least two of the main characters, seems to be catering for public approval with a smorgasbord of authorial pet ploys. The temptation then is to view the whole exercise as a pastiche – a pastiche wrapped all over the mischievous pastiche of paperback romance novels one of the three hags keeps churning out.
And yet, this is a book I have enjoyed reading, as I have enjoyed all other Updike novels and collections of short stories I’ve managed to lay hands on – for one reason only: the incomparable style of this accomplished wordsmith.
Updike was born with a word spoon in his mouth, it seems. A friend of his once said that, even on top of a ladder screwing in a light bulb, he could keep a lecture going and be word-perfect.
I am a sucker for style, and with Updike, my reader’s pouch is filled. Because, for all his clunky plots and spermatic concerns, John Updike is unrivalled in how a line should clink. It isn’t just about the mot juste, but also about acuity of observation and the vibes that inspired phrasing generates. For this I will hunt his other books and read again those I have – rather than those of other magicians of the word like Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie – whenever, grappling with belaboured prose for a living, I need a gasp of perfection to re-oxygenate my brain.
A critic once labelled Updike ‘a minor novelist with a major style’, and I subscribe fully to this view, whether or not the panache of his prose turns minor concerns into major ones, as some have it.