The Centaur by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”It must be terrible to know so much.”
“It is,” my father said. “It’s hell.”
Chiron depicted in Roman art. The Greeks always depicted him with human front legs. Chiron educated the children of the gods and goddesses so he is an apt mythological creature for George Caldwell to identify with.
George Caldwell is a school teacher at Olinger High School. He struggles with teaching, not because he isn’t good at it, but because he wants it to be so much more. His mind is so expansive that it often slips the bonds of Earth. One of those moments when he is taken by a flight of fancy was with Vera Hummel, a teacher as well, and also a lovely woman desired by all. John Updike is able to show off his knowledge of mythological creatures as Caldwell morphs into Chiron, and she of course becomes Venus. They discuss the gods and goddesses while flirting outrageously with each other. She extorts him to help her.
”Come, Chiron, crack my maidenhead; it hampers my walking.”
It is a good thing I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read that because it would have been spewed all over this book.
The narrative switches between George and his son Peter. Peter is a student at the same high school his father teaches at. He adores his father, but at the same time his father is so exasperating. George is self-deprecating to a painful point, and as an extension of his own view of himself, he wears a ratty cap and a dilapidated coat that make him look more like a bum than a well educated teacher. Peter is afraid for his father because he seems so vulnerable, so inept at the most mundane things, so lost in thoughts that can never be solved. In a moment of frustration, he yells at his father.
”But there’s nobody else like you Daddy. There’s nobody else like you in the world.”
The plot of the novel revolves around George and Peter trying to get home each day and encountering Herculean obstructions that keep them from arriving at their house in the country. George didn’t want to move to the country, but his wife yearned to be on the family farm. Some of George’s continuing issues with the car might have a lot to do with him never intending to own one. He prefered to live in town where he could walk everywhere he needed to be. After one of these thwarted attempts, they end up spending the night in the Hummel house. It proves to be an eye opening experience for Peter to have a day away from the chaos of their own household and have a glimpse at how normal people live. Vera truly becomes a magical goddess dispensing orange juice and bananas upon him like ambrosia.
”Intimations of Vera Hummel moved toward me from every corner of her house, every shadow, every curve of polished wood; she was a glimmer in the mirrors, a breath moving the curtains, a pollen on the nap of the arms of the chair I was rooted in.”
The novel in many ways is brilliant, reflecting an author’s mind that is brimming with intelligence and convoluted thoughts, maybe the inspiration for the labyrinth of George’s own mind. Updike does occasionally veer off course leaving the reader in the middle of the road looking in all directions for the smoke plumes of the car crash. Easily forgiven when Updike writes understated gems like the paragraph below.
”I closed my eyes and relaxed into my warm groove. The blankets my body had heated became soft chains dragging me down; my mouth held a stale ambrosia lulling me to sleep again. The lemon-yellow wallpaper, whose small dark medallions peered out from the pattern with faces like frowning cats, remained printed, negatively in red, on my eyelids.”
Peter becomes an artist. His father was a teacher. His grandfather was a priest. ”Priest, teacher, artist: the classic degeneration.” It did leave me wondering at the end of the book what exactly will the next generation of Caldwell’s be? Are they predestined to be teachers? Will they start the climb back to the priesthood?
I identified with both characters.
Less so with Peter as time marches me further and further away from those heady days of youth. His obsession with Penny Fogelman’s hot thighs; and yet, his fear of actually taking his clothes off in front of her were familiar counterweights from my own past. I was so skinny I thought any girl would think there was something wrong with me, like a bad case of ringworm or some wasting disease.
George’s mind is bulging with information comparable to a crammed bus enroute to Jodhpur. He sees life as larger than it could possibly be. He rises so high on the wings of his thoughts that when he crashes, it proves to be a long fall back to Earth. He battles daily with the odious, student stroking, Supervising Principal Zimmerman, who besides caressing female students also tortures George with obtuse evaluations of his teaching style. The question that plagues George is the one that eventually plagues most of us...there has to be more?
As the pendulum of time continues to duck walk me onward with my heels dragging and my hands grasping for purchase on anything to slow the motion forward, I too ask that question. It has become apparent to me that I can’t wait for some random act of the universe to send me on the proper path. The choice is really between accepting my fate, which some see as cowardly, but I see as yet another act of bravery, or I could pack up my paint kit and follow Gauguin’s footsteps to Tahiti.
Ok, well, maybe not THAT.
It does beg the question of what more is, and once we find and hogtie this mythical MORE, then what? It seems to me that most of us are just never supposed to be fulfilled. The thought of fulfillment is just depressing. It reminds me of the Matrix where they designed a world where everyone was happy and the citizens started committing suicide. We should achieve I think, but maybe not achieve too much. We always have to be left with something to dream about.
That is quite the self-satisfied smirk on John’s face in 1960, but then he can probably pull it off because he probably is the smartest person in the room.
I’m not really sure why people have quit reading John Updike. I could not put down this flawed, but wonderful book. I do hope that he does experience a resurgence of readers because there are writers in the next generation that would benefit from reading these eloquent and graceful sentences that Updike sprinkles liberally like a trail of emeralds through the texts of his books. I read this book to reconnect with his writing in anticipation of reading Updike by Adam Begley. The name of the author may be familiar to some. He is the son of Louis Begley, the writer that best carries the Updike torch forward in his own writing. However, he is 81, so someone else will soon have to shoulder the Updike legacy.
I have recently, in my hubris, launched a blog which will host my book reviews, but it will also have so much more. For example, I recently wrote a movie review of Birdman. I plan to write about whatever strikes my fancy. I thought about calling it something like The Passionate Reader, but decided I am who I am. http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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