My Father's Tears & Other Stories, By John Updike

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This collection of John Updike's late stories was first published a few months after he died of cancer in January 2009. It has been suggested – by Martin Amis, among others – that the author's descriptive powers were diminished by the end. That may be true, but if the Updike of My Father's Tears is no longer the masterful prose stylist of the Rabbit novels, then he is something altogether more vulnerable and human, and that seems only appropriate, given that these stories are concerned, almost invariably, with transience and loss.

Most of the characters here are elderly – "living next door to death", as Updike puts it, as if oblivion itself dwelt on one of the leafy streets that form the backdrop to these tales of suburban America. They are old men facing up to their mortality with a mixture of stoicism and wistfulness, prompted by the imminence of the end to recall those moments that made them feel alive. In "The Walk with Elizanne", a chance encounter with an old school girlfriend prompts a fevered recollection of a first kiss; in "Free", an aging widower tries to rekindle an affair with his former mistress, only to find the fire has died.

Memory, finitude, human frailty: these are grand themes, but what is memorable about these stories is Updike's close attention to the quotidian detail of life. He once wrote of his desire to "give the mundane its beautiful due", and he succeeds wonderfully here. In the final story, "The Full Glass", an old man savours the cool water with which he washes down his "life-prolonging pills" before going to sleep. In the concluding line, this simple evening ritual becomes a rousingly valedictory gesture – the closest Updike comes to raging against the dying of the light: "If I can read this strange old guy's mind aright, he's drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned." It's a fitting farewell.