Toil & Trouble

Like other prolific novelists (Philip Roth comes to mind), John Updike likes to revisit his characters, checking to see what they’ve been up to over the years since he invented them. In The Witches of Eastwick (1984) we first met the three gifted and dangerous women who worked their magic in a small, “semi-depressed and semi-fashionable” Rhode Island town. Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougement, having reduced their onetime husbands to “polychrome dust” or its equivalent (one set of remains is hung in the cellar along with dried herbs; another has been “permanized” in a plastic place mat) are free to exert their powers on the inhabitants of Eastwick, whose air, Alexandra feels, “empowers” women. So empowered, the three women neglect their children, sleep with various of the town’s husbands, cavort with a devil-figure named Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson hammed it up in the movie), and eventually put a mortal hex on Jenny Gabriel, the young woman whom Van Horne decides to marry. At the novel’s end, the women, having conjured up new husbands, leave Eastwick for other parts of the country.

Lo and behold, after two and a half decades they are (again) widowed, footloose, and in the mood for travel to foreign parts. The original Witches consisted of three parts: “The Coven,” “Malefica,” and “Guilt.” In the opening of the new novel (also in three parts and almost exactly as long as its predecessor), Alexandra, living in New Mexico, where she continues to produce her small, sculpted artworks (once called “hubbies”), is touring the Canadian Rockies. Upon her return she reads of the death of Jane’s husband. Alexandra gets back in touch with Jane, and the two women take a trip to Egypt. Then, after reestablishing contact with Sukie (also recently widowed), the three visit China, where, for the first time since the good old days, they practice a bit of mild witchcraft-a portrait of Mao is suddenly made to wink. Thus is “The Coven Reconstituted” (as the title of Widows’s first section proclaims). Since more foreign travel seems a bit expensive, the women sign up for two months in a rented condo in Eastwick. We are not surprised when extraordinary things begin to happen.

Witches was set during the Vietnam War and infused with the “female yearning” (Updike’s phrase) then featured in newspapers and magazines. The three witches are feminist pioneers as they take control of not only their own lives but those of community members who get in their way. It is perhaps Updike’s most mischievous novel, a surprising combination of romance à la Hawthorne and the expected Updikean realism through which nature and small-town Rhode Island life are presented. Things reach a pitch in the book’s middle third, with Van Horne serving as master of the sabbath revels; then, having done in Van Horne’s bride, the witches guiltily disperse, leaving behind a strong imprint of “something oblong and invisible and exciting.” This imprint is not to be understood but, as the novel’s closing sentence insists, “is there when we walk the beach in off-season and the Atlantic in its blackness mirrors the dense packed gray of the clouds: a scandal, life like smoke rings twisted into legend.” Here was Updike at his most poetic in his evocation of something more than human.

Widows is less densely poetic than much of Witches. It chronicles a wistful return to a time of romance and wickedness, made by three aging women who come home only after they’ve tried out more extravagant, less personal vistas. The parts of the book that take place abroad, in Canada, China, and Egypt, are in fact witty travelogues constructed out of Updike’s visits to those territories. They have nothing to do with “plot” but are full of tart reflections on other cultures, like Canada, where “hotel restaurants still seemed to think Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole the latest thing in background music.” Canada has “in self-defense embraced Green-ness, trying to make a pet of it, mining for tourist dollars the nostalgia and righteousness inherent in its cause. Bring Back Nature—who could object to that?” Except that Alexandra is unmoved by totem poles and stuffed moose. China is introduced in a tour-de-force page-long paragraph giving us a pocket history of the country as seen from the twentieth century: from “Pearl Buck peasants, dragon ladies, rickshaws, and comic-strip pirates” to “a billion three hundred million factory workers and rapacious consumers, a creditor of sagging American capitalism and competitor for the dwindling global supply of oil.” On occasion, as in the Egypt section, the inventory of tombs and artifacts goes on too long. But doubtless I have an Egypt problem, and I much admired Alexandra’s experience with a camel that “had too many joints, and his brain was only half on the job.” He finally sets her down and “batting his double eyelashes superciliously, produced the sound of flatulence with his grotesquely flexible lips, as glad to be rid of her as she of him.”

Back in Eastwick the novel’s satiric inclination finds adequate material on which to feed. Jane, the bitchiest, least good-humored member of the revivified coven, complains after only a week about the town’s homogenization: “toned-up young mothers driving their overweight boys in overweight SUVs to hockey practice twenty miles away, the young fathers castrated namby-pambies helping itty-bitty wifey with the housekeeping.” She concludes that “it’s the Fifties all over again, without the Russians as an excuse.” On a similar note, Sukie deplores the condition of her former hometown, Stamford, Connecticut, with its local newspapers “dying off, killed by blogs and e-mails, and in a strange way there aren’t any small towns anymore, just malls and commercial strips and assisted-living developments between them, and there isn’t even gossip anymore, the way there was when everybody was more sexually repressed.” She decides repression was the key to an energy that has disappeared since the 1950s, when it used to flourish.

But although we credit, for the sake of the fiction, that these sentiments emanate from one or another of the three ladies, it’s really Updike who’s speaking, and their bittersweet note has everything to do with the fact that, like the witches and some of the rest of us, he is becoming old. Randall Jarrell has a short poem, “In Those Days,” which ends with the following stanza:

How poor and miserable we were,
How seldom together!
And yet after so long one thinks:
In those days everything was better.

One may think so, as do the witches and maybe their creator, but one knows at least that in those days everything was different. Rather than give away the results of the coven’s “maleficia” or the novel’s surprisingly upbeat conclusion, I will quote instead an affecting remembrance of Eastwick past—those days in which everything was better. Alexandra is registering the mid-August feel of things moving toward conclusion:

The familiar shop fronts and clapboarded houses from earlier centuries; she had lived here, fully lived, with children and husband and lovers and friends, although the plod of duties and errands and monthly bills to pay had in part concealed from her the bliss of those days. Here, now, the long daylight of June and July was giving way to August’s gradual closing-down. It was after seven o’clock, dinnertime, and already the lamps behind the house windows seemed to burn from deeper within, more intensely. Long shadows crossed Dock Street from curb to curb.... Along Oak and Vane Streets, older children and visitors moved singly or in couples with a deliberate, self-conscious leisure on the dark Victorian lawns and the sidewalks, whose daytime pattern of shade was, when the streetlamps came on, abruptly recast into electric fragments and pates whose webby pattern of leaf and branch trembled and swayed in the rising evening breeze off the water.

Here is the authentic Updike note, as sounded in the Rabbit books and in so many of the stories. However charmed or not we may be by the witches as characters, the note can’t be gainsaid.

 


Related: John Updike, RIP, by the Editors
To the Visible World: On Worshiping John Updike, by Rand Richards Cooper

Published in the 2008-12-19 issue: 
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William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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