His historian, Alfred Landon Clayton, was named by Republican parents after the candidate smashed by President Roosevelt in his biggest landslide. In his late thirties Alf sat with his children and watched Richard Nixon, 'with his menacing, slipped-cog manner', depart the White House to be replaced by that amiable golfer and former footballer, Gerald R Ford, the only non- elected President in American history. The reader can relax: that is just about all John Updike's latest novel has to do with the brief political reign of the gentleman from Michigan.
Alf obliges his colleagues with disturbingly precise recollections of how he spent the years 1974 to 1977. As it comes back to him, he seems to have spent most of them in bed: with his wife, 'the Queen of Disorder', his mistress, 'the Perfect Wife', and with several other willing temporaries.
Several of these coitus - Alf would certainly know that the Latin fourth declension is unchanged in the plural - are described in unsparing detail. Bodily fluids are savoured like vintages. Indeed, Updike's bedroom scenes give a new meaning to the expression 'smells and belles'.
In the tradition of the higher pornography, however, these romps are not offered merely to stimulate the juices of jaded readers. They serve to point a moral, as well as to adorn the tale.
The moral seems to be a familiar, depressingly puritan one: even if you have tenure to teach history to nubile co-eds in a 'good' college in the more Arcadian parts of New England, you pays for your pleasures. Alf learns painfully that even among the leafiest Groves of Academe, even in that interval which is now slipping back into the mythical past, between the invention of the birth control pill and the arrival of Aids, there was always a price to pay for sexual freedom.
This, at least, seems to be the message of that new addition to the Old Testament, the Prophet Updike. Alf is spared the plagues of boils and the other traditional recompenses of hubris; as far as we know, a jealous God does not even afflict him with non-specific urethritis. But his dreams of fair women come down to the hard New England earth. He is caught in the toils of his mistress's husband, who is double-dyed as a villain by being both a deconstructionist and a Middle Westerner.
But the wicked are rewarded by a good financial offer from Yale. Alf goes back to his wife, his children, and his teaching. And he never finishes his projected biography of President James Buchanan - you remember, the one before Lincoln, who may have been gay and who presided over the slide into civil war.
In what has become a somewhat modish way, Updike planned to weave together two American lives: the dull, putatively upright Pennsylvanian politician whose emotional life was ruined by small-town gossip over an indiscreet discussion of religion with a lady not his betrothed; and the genteel academic, sleeping his sad way through the wives of colleagues and the mothers of pupils in the temporary absence of all restraints on sexual behaviour.
The Buchanan sections are beautifully written and, so far as I can tell, impeccably researched. Even the amorous adventures of hapless Alf are recounted in Updike's most elegant prose; every detail of adultery, recollected in tranquillity, is exquisitely crafted, from the rumpled sheets to the guilty encounters with the children to the guillotine finality of the moving van.
It doesn't work, though. I think the fundamental reason is that Updike is trying to have too many cakes and to eat them simultaneously. Presumably he is trying to say something both pessimistic and moralistic about the declension of American history, from the tragic inevitability with which, as Lincoln put it, 'every drop of blood drawn with the lash' was paid 'by another drawn by the sword', to the sordid selfishness that comes from abandoning the high purposes of the past. But if he is trying to say something like that, it is simply not clear enough.
Apart from this aura of false sententiousness, the two narratives never quite meet, nor do they reach the point where one illuminates the other. They are just that: two narratives, the pedantry and the porn, intertwined but never interconnected. Alf shuffles along, feeling sorry for himself with his trousers round his ankles, until his mother dies and leaves him the Florida condo and her AT&T stock. That is the contemporary equivalent, in the New Yorker reading classes, of the fake end to the Book of Job when the patriarch gets paid off with all those flocks and children.
And it is hard to avoid asking, as Updike leads us, with scrupulous scholarship, through the thickets of historical ambiguity about where precisely responsibility lay for the gunfire at Fort
Sumter which began the American Civil War, why he is telling us all of this.
Do not get me wrong. This is an entertaining book, and one with wonderful pages in it, both in its historical reconstructions and in its satirical account of a New England college coming to terms with sexual liberation. It is only, if I may be so pompous, as a work of art that it fails.Reuse content