John Updike has since the 1950s been the chronicler of the American mind. His twenty-one novels, poems, short stories, and essays have examined the American Dream and its vagaries, the inner and outer lives of the men and women living through the 20th century, the dichotomy between classes, ethics, sexual maturation, big business, politics as seen from both sides of the fence - name it and Updike has explored it. But John Updike also happens to be a gifted, eloquent wordsmith who can make small observations in a few words that become instantly branded on the brain as epiphanies. Reading Updike is a complete pleasure.
For those questioning whether this first man of letters has anything new to say, then VILLAGES is a must read. By the literary means of separating chronological 'biography' with evenly interspersed chapters that pause to explore the sexuality of the main character ("Village Sex I - VI") Updike's writing is refreshing and affords a better scrutiny of the life of a man as influenced by his gradual sexual awakening, underlining how those basic needs alter his movement through the stages from childhood through adolescence through adulthood to old age.
Owen Mackenzie was born during the Depression in Willow, Pennsylvania, (the first Village) a child of minimal means whose every discovery becomes a preparation for the Rake's Progress ahead. His introduction to the glories of the female body are bumpily naive and it is this 'frozen adolescence' the propels him through a marriage to a fellow student Phyllis) at MIT whom he marries and has four children, and upon graduation moves to Middle Falls, Connecticut where he slowly becomes a guru in the nascent computer industry. His various acts of adultery/affairs include a cornucopia of women of different types and values, and as his age and company and life in this village progress, he eventually must face his choices. He finally divorces Phyllis and marries another odd type (Julia, recently divorced from the town minister) only to end up in a retirement 'village' of Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts. A fairly simple story, and much in line with Updike's previous works.
The joy of this book is in the asides addressing issues few authors face head-on. "Capitalism...asks only one thing of us: that we consume. The stupider we are, the better consumers we are...You don't need to understand anything to watch television; they want you so stupid you keep staring at the commercials."
"A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall."
"Not for the rich the scattered wandering, the flight from ill-equipped nuclear family into America's wasteland of tawdry entertainments, of shopping-mall parking lots as large as lakes and seedy roadside bars advertising karaoke on Wednesday nights, of deserted downtowns and razed forests, of roving from job to job and mate to mate, amid such meagre electronic distractions as heist movies featuring car wrecks and fireballs and television comedies that reflect as in a fuzzy, fizzing mirror the awkward comedy of our desperate daily improvisations beyond the ordering principals of church, village, and family hierarchy...Only the rich - and not all of them, for some turn rebellious and others topple through self-neglect into lower castes - can afford the old structures that carry us from cradle to grave, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-respected."
"There are fewer and fewer somewheres in America, and more and more anywheres, strung out along the highways."
"It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness - to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperative into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within."
The only summation of this book worthy of the writer is simply to encourage everyone to read it. An extraordinary journey is between these covers. Grady Harp, November 2004