the poorhouse fair by john updike

The Poorhouse Fair

The Poorhouse Fair 2

Random House Trade Paperbacks (March 13, 2012)

Review by Ray Greenblatt

(a relook at Updike’s Poorhouse Fair)

Since John Updike’s oeuvres have come to an end, it is fitting to revisit his very first novel.  Updike was merely twenty-six when this book was published, an astonishing feat! But he had a maturity based on a number of factors.  Being a fortunate child with close parents and even grandparents living with them, Updike experienced all ages and genders.  That he had married at age twenty-one and had two children by the time he finished the novel would be further proof of his unusual worldliness.  High intelligence as shown by his summa cum laude from Harvard and a sensitivity often developed in the life of an only child equipped him to be an acute writer of sensibility.

In a question & answer session with The Paris Review, Updike stated that his book was an “anti-novel.” I agree that not much happens externally, but we have entrée into the character of several older people. The characters’ long histories come to life. I identify two major characters: John Hook and Stephen Conner; and several supporting characters: Lucas, Elizabeth, Gregg, and Mark. As they are revealed to us, Updike’s style of employing Nature illuminates them in universal terms.

Stephen Conner is the head administrator at the poorhouse. Today we might use the term “retirement community”,” but that would be misleading in terms of the social mores of the 1950’s. Conner reminds me of the young man in Updike’s short story “Lifeguard” who thinks he can save the world but only on his own terms. His major positive trait is that he loves music. “Like many humanists, Conner was deeply responsive to music. In the language of melody speeches about man’s aspirations and eventual victory could be made that explicit language would embarrass. He could not hear a dozen chords without crystals building in his head, images: naked limbs, the exact curve of the great muscle of a male thigh, cities, colored spires soaring. Man was good. There was a destination. Health could be bought.” (101)

And yet there is a negative tinge here, like a subtle coloration in a fruit of hinted decay. As a social worker Conner claims that he likes people and wants to help them. But to broadly state that people in the arts and sciences were being selfish undermines his good will. He seems to be fundamentally afraid of life. On occasion he wants to hide in his office. He was an insomniac who hated beds, saying they were possessive; hearing dislocated words as he lay there.

Further regarding the old people in his charge, he felt superior to them. At the same time he feels self-conscious in their company. He reasons that too many of the old folks have lived too long; they should make room for the rising generation. Sensing this attitude they react one day by tossing pebbles at him. He doesn’t know how to handle the situation. At first he is simply embarrassed. Then he thinks: “There was security for him in their feebleness; their memory was frail, and grasped at ancient things.  Present time to them must appear weightless, a thin edge of paper. Further he imagined their judgments of him would be clement; the past seasons had inevitably bred some degree of affection and tolerance.” (127)

John Hook was a bright and vigorous man of the astonishing age of ninety-four. He could be a composite of Updike’s father and grandfather. He stood tall and erect. His eyesight had dimmed somewhat, and his steps sometimes wobbled. But he still enjoyed a regimen of four cigars a day. He was a thinker, having been a high school teacher for many years, with a special love for Roman history and American politics. As he said, he had lasted so long that he had sadly outlived both his wife and children. And yet, he had a sense of humor. “Everyone laughed; Hook was an expert mimic. The hiss of avarice and the high-pitched musical fluting of the hypocrite had been rebuilt in their midst, and Hook’s face had submitted to a marvelous transformation, the upper lip curling back in fury, then stiffening to go with the sanctimony of the arched eyebrows.” (75)

Mr. Hook believed that in the twentieth century mankind had lost its focus. He reasoned that boredom could lead a person into trouble. He thought that on one hand he personally was over-conscientious and on the other had missed an opportunity. His sin, he felt, was that years ago he had overlooked a man who was asking for help. However, one book sustained Hook. “The Bible, its spine in shreds, from which he would read chapter of the Gospels, those springs of no certain bottom, which you never find dry.” (143)

The culminating moment of the novel, for me, is when Hook intellectually confronts Conner, who states that he does not believe in God nor the redeeming power of nature.  He says to Hook: “The truth is, Mr. Hook, that if the universe was made, it was made by an idiot . . . We are mostly monster. People speak of loving life. Life is a maniac raving in a sealed room.” (92)

Hook responds by saying that pain is part of life, not an evil. He asks where do we come from? Not hit or miss over time as science theorizes, but God created us. In addition, God can console us, he has lessons for us in life, and Nature adorns His universe. Hook concludes with: “There is no goodness, without belief. There is nothing but busy-ness. And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved, to take into the next.” (94)

As a supporting character, Lucas is a farmer, a representative of all the age-old agriculture surrounding Updike as he grew up in rural Pennsylvania. A person of the land, Lucas is direct; a few brief quotes will define him: “He studied his food, boiled potato white on the white china on the white tabletop.” (58) “Lucas’s lower lip, shaped like one of those rare berries that is in fact two grafted together, protruded defiantly.” (65) “Lucas picked up the handiest weapon, his favorite, the truth.” (66)

Lucas is now old, growing fat, experiencing pain in his ear. He does not like to touch nor be touched. He often remembers his farming days, visiting the pig barns on the poorhouse property to feed them and commiserate. He lives with his wife in the poorhouse, a rare occurrence. He has memories of his daughter once loving them when she was young; now an adult she hardly communicates. As his wife fails, he does anything he can for her like chasing their escaped parakeet somewhere in the vast building. “In his stealth he felt enormously thick, cosmically big: his shoulders were Jupiter and Saturn.” (71)

Some of these supporting characters are most effectively limned by Updike in analogy. Elizabeth Heinemann is blind. A sibyl, a confidante to whom you feel safe to speak. Thus, almost all of her descriptions are metaphorical. About her eyesight: “Her confused inner world of tilting purple tumuli, a pre-Creational landscape fairly windowed by her eyes, the navy blue of a new baby’s.” (58)

What she hears when another person speaks: “Her vowels were of different distinct colors, the consonants like leading in a window of stained glass.” (78) This leads to the sense of touch as well: “The things you see are to me composed of how they feel when I touch them, and the sounds they make, for everything has a sound, even silent things.” (79)

She has lost much of her ability to adapt to normal conversations: “There was a smoothness in the discharge of her inner accumulations that compelled the silence sacred performances ask.” (79) Her blindness has over the years brought her a kind of fulfillment: “A voice wasn’t a twisted face but something musical. I could sit in a room with my parents and feel their emotions washing my sides, and hear a thousand details in their speech they were ignorant of, and feel my being in the room turn them toward gaiety and reverence.” (80)

Gregg is the fly in the poorhouse. He is a failed old man with many years of frustrated baggage. Yet he is not lethargic; rather, he is hyperactive in anti-social mischief. I think that Updike is fascinated with this abundant but wasted energy. Quite appropriate was Gregg’s trade as an electrician. His language is continuously  foul. He appears grimy, his clothes disheveled. His emotions run hot and cold in an instant. Updike describes Gregg’s appearance a lot: “A net of dark wrinkles had been thrown across his face, and his features seemed bright things caught in this net.” (41) Then later: “Gregg’s net of wrinkles gave the impression of caging a bright and panicked energy.” (81)

With some others Gregg takes a swig of rotgut whiskey sneaked onto the poorhouse premises which abstractly capsulizes his whole life: “As in the flavor of certain vegetables acres of bland rural landscape are contained, stone houses, fields, and grassy lanes, so this rasping hard taste flowered in Gregg’s mouth into high brick blank walls, streets of pocked asphalt bleeding in summer heat, the blue glint on corrugated iron where it is not rusted orange, the sun multiplied down a row of parked cars, tangerines pyramided behind plate glass, manhole covers, filth in gutters . . . “ (84) At the end of the novel while others sleep in the middle of the night, Gregg is dancing on the lawn, singing and talking to himself.

Mark is a symbol of all John Updike knows about childhood. He had a head start since he was an only child who had to learn to entertain himself as well as get along with others. He also as a father with two young children was learning more about them every day. Mark reminds me of the young boy in the short story “You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You.” The world is wondrous for a while.

Mark—sounding so much like Updike in his autobiographical writing—“was in the process of subduing the town to memory. Finally there would be no intersection or lot where something had not happened to him” (112) Although he was still scared of the dark, he held a distinctive idea of God: “To Mark the world was a vast empty place, yet personified with a mouth and long eyes, always steadily watching him, from the air above the top of a house.” (114)

Mark has come to the poorhouse fair with his grandfather Fred. Fred’s relationship with his daughter is not distance nor death but subservience. She and her aggressive husband have moved into Fred’s house and taken over “for his own good” now that his wife is deceased. What is happening in the town is mirrored in the poorhouse. Mark can feel it. “Afraid to turn his eyes to his grandfather’s lest the old man see through their clear substance into a well of pity.” (114) The child can be father to the man. The only satisfaction Fred gets is conversing with John Hook. “Like two chieftains meeting upon the ridge that separates their armies, the two men spoke face to face in the exact center of the main path.” (123)

John Updike’s short novel of one hundred and fifty pages is equally divided into three chapters. Each chapter contains a dozen sections or more, offering glimpses of the people and events at the poorhouse fair as it moves through the day. This kaleidoscopic effect is often intensified by certain fascinating techniques.

Some of Updike’s sentences are bedrock declarations, such as what products sold best at the fair: “There was a keen subversive need, at least in the cities, for objects that showed the trace of a hand, whether in an irregular seam, the crescent cuts of a chisel, or the dent of a forge hammer.” (118) Or unique personification: “He expected at every moment the window to smack it lips and the water cooler to gurgle uproariously.” (43) Or pure fanciful imagery about a piano being hoisted to a second story: “The tapered legs tracing a fugal phrase ‘largo’ on the emptiness as the huge instrument gently twirled in its secure cradle of rope.” (16)

Late in the novel to underscore the pouring out of the long day and the jagged energy of those tending and attending the fair, Updike uses a stream-of-conscious method. First we have a passage with John Hook speaking; then later on a page of various persons at the fair speaking; finally several pages of Hook again now conversing with Fred against a crescendo of other people’s broken phrases.

One comically surreal passage stands out when a sick person in bed sees through a narcotic haze Lucas chasing the green parakeet: “The green flower had sprouted unsurprisingly; the appearance of a bear seemed to follow from that. Now the bear growled. It seemed sorry for something, but then he was sorry too, and though there was no need to say so he smiled. The bear pointed; the flower leaped; the flower skimmed over the ceiling, and at a command from the bear the door closed sharply, saying ‘Idiot.’ The bear lifted its arms and sank from view, and the flower bloomed on the bed, its bright eyes frightening.” (72)

Like a door closing, in the final paragraph the novel seems to reach closure by describing John Hook’s room at night. “The moon so feeble previously now cast shadows through the window and rendered shapes: the bent boards of the little thick Bible, the open mouth of his shoes, the hang of his vest on the hook, the ribs of caning on the seat of his one chair.” (150)  The real and tangible things in his now circumscribed life. Over and over again Updike uses Nature to intensify man’s place in the cosmos.

Reputations fluctuate. Hemingway, dead now a half-century, in the future might be known for: a book on bull-fighting or big game hunting; a few stories still unique ninety years later; or A Moveable Feast, nearly an afterthought to him. John Updike has been a factory of endeavor: two Eastwicks, three Bechs, four Rabbits just in the genre of novel. Will the multiple weights of these works dominate? Time will winnow literature, that and changing culture. Sometimes first is best; I firmly believe that The Poorhouse Fair will endure.

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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI