{review} updike's stories about trust

John Updike is a force of a writer to be reckoned with, in my opinion: he deftly navigates the domestic scene from both male and female perspectives. He writes simply with a heavy preference to dialogue and detail, and he makes you feel like you're standing right next to his characters listening to their every word, watching their every move. It feels like he could be telling you about your neighbor, your spouse, your friend, yourself.

I'm partial to his short stories over his novels, just because the former ones pack a real punch and are easier to digest (which doesn't actually make them easy to read by any means). One of my reading life goals is to make it through the entire Updike canon, which includes poetry and both literary and art criticism, too.

Updike has been long fascinated with themes of love, family, commitment, parenthood, identity, intimacy, fidelity, sex and marriage, and now, in Trust Me: Short Stories, he delves into sister subjects: trust and betrayal. Ironically, this collection was recommended to me by someone who I had great experience with on these topics -- funny how that works.

The 22 stories range in depth and length:

  • "Killing," about a daughter's frustration over her dying father in a nursing home.
  • "Still of Some Use," a metaphoric tale about how our homes and belongings mirror the completeness or brokenness of a shared life.
  • "Lovely Trouble Daughters," an exploration of the "spinster" label in one small town.
  • "A Constellation of Events" and "The Other Woman," odes to the beginnings and endings of affairs.
  • "Made in Heaven," about the ways in which couples subscribe to certain narratives through a marriage, whether true or false.
  • "The Wallet," a story on memory and loss and how both affect our sense of identity, power and control.

And the first story, aptly named "Trust Me," is one of the most powerful. Harold, the young protagonist, almost drowns when his father pushes him into a pool after promising to catch him -- but then doesn't. We follow Harold through a string of relationships in which he repeats this pattern of promising credibility and safety only to let the other person down; he is haunted by the fact that his own father did not take Harold's fears seriously, and yet, he does the exact same thing to the people in his life over and over again. Toward the end of the story, it comes full circle again when a terrified, high Harold is sharply abandoned through one small action.

As a reader, I found myself thinking: why do we repeat behaviors that hurt us, even when we know better? How do we know which small moments will be internalized and affect us long down the road? Does trust always mean follow-through by the other person? How is it possible to remain loyal to those we love while protecting our changing nature and path in life? What does it mean, and feel like, to trust someone?

Like most great short story collections, Trust Me is best devoured in small doses, a chapter at a time. The superb, deceivingly straightforward writing brings small-town characters to life amid quick portraits of their day-to-day interactions as well as the minute and major repercussions of their choices.