The action takes place on the day of the annual fair, when the residents sell crafts and other goods to the local townspeople. The fair has always been the residents favorite day, although a burden they simultaneously resent. When the fair goes less then well, the residents revolt, albeit in rather passive ways, against their new leader, further delineating the lines between them.
Updike's greatest asset as a writer has always been his love of language and that gift is present even here, his first novel. Unfortunately, the novel lacks the stronger narrative drive he subsequently developed in novels such as the Rabbit series. At times, the novel is confusing and almost free-form in nature. This situation is particularly pronounced in the final third, when the townspeople converge on the poorhouse, introducing a multitude of new characters and stories.
Although brilliantly written, the novel is sluggish at times. At less than 200 pages, it nevertheless took me a relatively long time to struggle through. In the end, I appreciated many qualities of the book, but frankly I didn't really enjoy it. Recommended primarily for Updike completists.
In his first novel, we see John Updike about to bloom unto a wonderful writer and most of his themes are here in this slim book: growing old, facing death, thinking about Man and God. I should be able to delve deeper into the themes but I don't read for grand themes, frankly. I read Saul Bellow for the comedy of intellectuals struggling with daily life; I read Iris Murdoch to be among smart folks who seem so damned dumb; and I read Philip Roth for the jolt of the smut from people who should be nicer and holier. That said, I read Updike for the gorgeous language and his mission to catalog the world he sees, like some monk on a mission. Nature is gift to show us how small we are and Updike is here to record everything that catches his gleeming eye.
'The Poorhouse Fair' at first feels like a trifle but it expands after you put the book down. Not to be a jerk, but after reading this book I felt I was watching a commercial for a paper towel expanding, gaining heft and becoming richer after being dipped in a glass of water. Silly, but that's how I feel. Read The Poorhouse Fair, put it down and then read 'Of the Farm' and then get cracking on the Rabbit novels. When you're done with those, we'll talk about 'Couples', and 'Towards the End of Time', and ...
The tensions between the old people and Connor are reminiscent of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (which was written later than this novel?), in that rebellion against authority is bubbling away all the time. Yet the real joy of the novel for me was the differt interpretations of the meaning of life and of the possibility of an afterlife: one passage in which a younger person cannot comprehend that one of the old women has dispensed with any concept of the utility or value of money, as she is so near death, was particularly thought-provoking.
Worth a read.