Last Proofs

John Updike was well-known for being fussy when it came to revising his work. As he wrote in the introduction to a 1995 collection of his Rabbit novels: “Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine.” If you want to see just how obsessive he could be, the Penn State library has a online exhibit that shows the various tweaks performed on the pages of his 1974 play, Buchanan Dying, from early drafts through final proofs.

I’ve been thinking about that process as I finish reading Updike’s forthcoming story collection My Father’s Tears, which would be among the last works Updike revised before his death last January. (The Maples Stories, a collection that includes the contents of 1979’s Too Far to Go plus some newer material, comes out in August.) My Father’s Tears includes some of the last stories that Updike published in the New Yorker before his death; because those stories are readily available online, it’s fairly easy to compare the magazine version of the story to the book version. There are plenty of small differences, for instance, between the version of “Outage” published in January 2008 edition of the New Yorker, and the one in the book. Some are minor: The main character’s name changes from Brad to Evan. Some are head-scratchers: A description of a poster showing a woman draped in a “tiger skin” on a Lamborghini becomes a woman draped in a “python.” (Perhaps he caught Britney Spears on YouTube sometime between proofs?)

But many of his adjustments seem designed to better sell the main plot of the story, which involves Brad/Evan hooking up with a neighbor, Lynne, during a power outage. It’s not one of Updike’s better stories, and his fussing seems to reflect a concern that the strange, mutual seduction going on isn’t very convincing. There aren’t many adjustments, but the ones there are attempt to more strongly integrate sex into the story. Living room furnishings that were all “all mixed with Orientals and family antiques” are now “promiscuously mixed with Orientals and family antiques.” Soon after, in the magazine version, he wonders if Lynne pulls off her sneakers “to avoid bending over beneath his eyes”; in the book, he wonders if she’s doing it “to avoid bending over, ass up, beneath his eyes.”

There are more sizable, and more effective, changes in the “The Road Home,” which first appeared as “The Roads of Home” in the New Yorker in February 2005. The story, like the majority of the stories in the collection, deals with old age, following a man named David Kern as he navigates the streets of his childhood home. For the book, Updike inserts the word Olinger into the story, making it a part of the body of stories he set in the mythical Pennsylvania town early in his career. And a new passage reveals an urge to better embed the story in the past:

[Kern’s mother] had maintained, with the earnestness with which she advanced her most fanciful theories, that this had always been a woman’s house. She cited as proof the fact that its first owner was recorded, in 1816, as being a woman, named Mercy Landis. Nothing was known of her but her name on the old deed; she existed where history shaded into myth . . .

Kern felt the tracks of his ancestors all around him—generation after generation laboring, eating, walking, driving within this Pennsylvania county’s bounds, laying down an invisible network of worn paths. Only he had escaped. Only he, of his boyhood household, now lived to witness how the region was changing, gradually consuming its older self, its landmarks disappearing one by one in the slow-motion tumult of decay and substitution as the newer generations made their own demands on the land.

His cuts mattered as much as his additions. The last story that Updike published in the New Yorker while he was living, “The Full Glass,” appeared in the magazine in May 2008. It’s among his thinnest stories in terms of plot, a light description of the infirmities of aging framed around a memory of an old affair. The protagonist wants to remain optimistic yet knows the end is coming—what’s critical isn’t the storytelling but the tone. A Updike seems to have found the following sentence, beautiful as it is, perhaps too glum to appear in the final book:

I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars.

Of course, I’m working off a couple of assumptions here. The stories in My Father’s Tears, as written, could have predated the New Yorker versions, and editors at the magazine could have made their own adjustments. But, as Roger Angell points out in his essay about editing Updike, he took no change lightly, and he routinely made additions and subtractions right up until the magazine went to press. Also, it’s my duty as a book reviewer to note that I am working with an uncorrected proof of My Father’s Tears, and that its text may differ from the final hardcover version that Knopf will publish next month. But who would dare change a word?

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