“We put “Lay Lady Lay” on the record player, and “Suzanne.” We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, and in the evening the smell of jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows. I made bouillabaisse for people who did not eat meat. I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going on around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation was the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and vertical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
from the story, "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car":
"There was a time when I wondered why more people did not go to church. Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? To listen, or not to listen, as a poorly paid but resplendently robed man strives to console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts, hopelessly compromised by words, of those intimations of divine joy that are like pain in that, their instant gone, the mind cannot remember or believe them; to witness the windows donated by departed patrons and the altar flowers arranged by withdrawn hands and the whole considered spectacle lustrous beneath its patina of long use; to pay, for all this, no more than we are moved to give---surely in all democracy there is nothing like it. Indeed, it is the most available democratic experience. We vote less than once a year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its arithmetic of equality: one equals one equals one.
. . . I ushered with my father at the Wednesday-night service. We would arrive in our old car---I think it was the '38 Chevrolet then---on those raw March nights and it pleasantly surprised me to find the building warm, the stoked furnace already humming its devotions in the basement. The nave was dimly lit, the congregation small, the sermon short, and the wind howled a nihilistic counterpoint beyond the black windows blotted with garbled apostles; the empty pews, making the minister seem remote and small and emblematic, intensified our sensation of huddling. There was a strong sepia flavor of Christianity: a minority flock furtively gathered within a dying, sobbing empire. From the rear, the broad back and baked neck of the occasional dutiful son loomed bullishly above the black straw hats of the mischievous-looking old ladies, gnarled by farmwork, who sat in their rows like withered apples on the shelves of a sweet-smelling cellar. My father would cross and uncross and recross his legs and stare at his thoughts, which seemed distant. It was pleasant to sit beside him in the rear pew. He was not much of a man for sitting still. When my parents and I went to the movies, he insisted on having the aisle seat, supposedly to give his legs room. After about twenty minutes he would leap up and spend the rest of the show walking around in the back of the theatre, drinking water and talking to the manager while my mother and I, abandoned, consoled ourselves with the flickering giants of make-believe. He had nothing of the passive in him; a church always became for him, something he helped run. It was pleasant, and even exciting, when the moment for action came, to walk by his side up the aisle, the thump of our feet the only sound in the church, and to take the wooden, felt-floored plates from a shy blur of white robes and to administer the submission of alms. Coins and envelopes sought to cover the felt. I condescended, stooping gallantly into each pew. The congregation seemed like the Others, reaching, with quarters glittering in their fingers, toward mysteries in which I was smugly involved. Even to usher at a church mixes us with the angels, and is a dangerous thing." (John Updike, 1961)
There's a fine new John Updike story in "The New Yorker". Not revolutionary, but lovely. If “The Full Glass” were his final story (God forbid), it would be a sweet and graceful exit. It's easy to take Updike for granted—he can be exhausting—but for some years now, he's been tracking the advancing age of the prototypical ‘Updike man’, those white suburban men whose sexual improprieties the writer exulted in so vividly in “Couples” and “A Month of Sundays” and a zillion other novels and stories. In this story, the narrator is 80 (Updike is 76) and though I’m not an expert, I can't think of another living writer who’s so purposefully matching his main character’s aging process to that of his own. When I read these stories (at coffee shop counters, inevitably) I always think that it won't be a surprise if John Updike finds a way to file one last short story with “The New Yorker” when he himself gets to the great beyond—Heaven or Hell, described in achingly exquisite detail.
"Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one can be certain.
And yet there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined, it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given—so we track it, in linear fashion, piece by piece. Time, however, can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is—and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is."
“During the summer Clarence took his own defeat indoors, deserting the sunny harsh streets of door-to-door rejection for the shadowy interiors of those moving-picture houses that, like museums of tawdry curiosities, opened their doors during the day….When Clarence had paid his nickel — one of the brand-new Indian-head nickels, with a buffalo hulking on the reverse side —and settled into his hard chair in the dark, carefully placing his leather salesman’s case upright between his ankles, it was as if his eyes drank a flickering liquor. The passionate, comical, swift-moving action on the screen, speckled with bright scratches, entered him like an essential food which he had been hitherto denied.
…Within the movie theatre, amid the other scarcely seen slumped bodies, he felt released from accusation. The moving pictures’ flutter of agitation and gesticulated emotion from women of a luminous and ideal pallor licked at his fevered brain soothingly….Before the lights were lowered there was a murmur of indolent conversation and a crackle of paper bags holding sweets and sugar buns and Polish sausages and cups of ice chips; then came a hush of expectation when the projectionist could be heard moving in his cubicle behind them; his little square windows emitted unscheduled blue flashes and whiffs of smoke that testified to the dangerous spark at the root of his sorcery. Then the projector, turned by hand, began to spin overhead its chuckling whir. There were splinters of daylight at the back of the building which Clarence ceased to see once the great screen came alive. This was a church with its mysteries looming brilliantly, undeniably, above the expectant rows. The projectionist slowed or speeded up the reel like a conductor regulating a symphony’s tempo, and the piano player in the corner, huddled beneath his sallow lamp like a monk at his candlelit prayers, sought to inscribe the silent images with thunders and tinklings that channeled the unified emotions of the audience into surging indignation, distress, suspense, and a relief that verged upon the comic in the violence of its discharge.
…Watching the “movies” took no strength, but recovering from them did — climbing again out of their scintillating bath into the bleak facts of life, his life, gutted by God’s withdrawal. He felt himself fading away, but for the hour when the incandescent power of these manufactured visions filled him. Those black-lipped heart-shaped faces, those shapely and agitated eye-whites ringed in kohl, those imperiled round-limbed actresses in glitter pagan undress. Those Babylonian temples, their papier-mâché façades blending into painted images of their rear porticos and extensions. Those rough men combative and ready to die in their shaggy chaps and ornately stitched boots. Those exotic places where life occurred and where he would never go. When the film was over, and the pales lights of the world came back on, he stood and looked kindly upon the dazed and sated faces of the others in the audience, who had been motionlessly pursuing the same adventures as he, and who now awoke from the same dream.
from John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)
"People talk about the new image of America but to me it's still the old one—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. It's not computers, cocaine and David Letterman. Hedy Lamarr, Dorothy Dandridge, that's my idea of America, and who's improved on it? People, if they had a choice, would still want to be Rhett Butler...I like to keep my values scripturally straight. I like to stay a part of the stuff that don't change. Actually, it's not that difficult—people still love and they hate, they still marry and have children, still slaves in their minds to their desires, still slap each other in the face, and say, 'honey can you turn off the light' just like in ancient Greece. What's changed? When did Abraham break his father's idols? I think it was last Tuesday. God is still the judge and the devil still rules the world so what's different? No matter how big you think you are history is gonna roll over you...To the aspiring songwriter and singer I say disregard all the current stuff, forget it, you're better off, read John Keats, Melville, listen to Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. Movies too, I've seen hundreds of them, how many of them stay with you? Shane, Red River, On the Waterfront, Freaks? Maybe a handful of others. I saw one the other night, as soon as it was over, I couldn't remember a thing about it. Seemed real important at the time though."