Here Come The Maples by John Updike, 1976
The magic trick:
Filling the story with small, razor-sharp truths
Hmm. Small, razor-sharp truths? I just typed that. I’m not totally sure what that means. That’s a pretty stupid way to write. John Updike does not write like that. He doesn’t use phrases like “small, razor-sharp truths,” and for that we are grateful.
These stories about the Maples, evidently, are drawn from Updike’s real-life divorce from his real-life first wife. I find that kind of autobiography dangerous ground for a short story. Things can get too claustrophobic real quick, and, make no mistake, this story is not big in any way. This is small stuff – the range of feelings a man experiences as he approaches a divorce hearing in court. That’s it. Our world here, as a reader, is limited to this guy’s brain, his memories and his feelings.
But recall those aforementioned small, razor-sharp truths. They are Updike’s saving grace. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could fall apart as a maudlin diary entry. But Updike sprinkles in all these little moments that make the reader feel the feelings of the protagonist. These details are so spot-on, the reader can’t help but relate and say, “Oh, yes, that’s it exactly. That’s how it was for me once too.” The story no longer is a thinly veiled Updike autobiography; it stands in for the reader’s own personal history as well. And that’s quite a a trick on Updike’s part.
As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming. He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything – for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind ate the bread crumbs.