John Updike (2000 [2003]) Great Loves. The Women Who Got Away.

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This is a book of five short stories – Natural Color, New York Girl, Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War, The Women Who Got Away and Transaction –  about man’s priapic need to love women, come what may and whatever the cost to existing marriages or children. A man that thinks with his dick is a man I can believe in. And I ask myself a simple question is this a true story or not? If I’m not really sure whether it’s fact or fiction then the stories are coins of true worth. I guess there’s every kind of women here, but only one kind of man.

Eddie Chester, for example, in Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War is a banjo player from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (which reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy sketch). He’s hitched a gig on a cultural exchange programme during the Khrushchev era of 1964 and during a briefing in Washington he meets up with Imogene, ‘one of the receptionists a little black haired coffee-fetcher from that afternoon’s briefing came up to me as if her breasts were being offered on a tray.’  It seems like bad manners to resist and like the other narrators being away from home and children means different rules apply. Imogene, Eddie finds, is an easy lay.

I like to press my face into a girlfriend’s nether soul, to taste the waters that we must all swim out to the light. I strove to keep my manly focus, amid the juggling caused by government-issue alcohol, my wondering what time it was, the jostling of my conscience…

In other words they have sex or make love. And that become Eddie’s problem. He sees it as the former and she regards it as the latter – flooding the diplomatic pouches with her missives and plans which follow Eddie from Moscow to the Caucasus.  Eddie’s not an unreasonable man. He just wants to be left alone and he’s got a bit of a thing for Nadia his KGB, translator.

There would be a moment, towards the end of a long public day in, say Tashkent, when her English would deteriorate, just shy of weariness from drawing on a double set of brain cells, and her eyelids and the tip of her long white nose would get pink…and she would give me the handshake, not the palm and meat of the thumb, but four cool fingers, aligned like a sergeant’s stripes.

The narrator is a man that loves women as does, I suspect the author, who has a propensity for it seems for long white noses and hiding from former beaus in shop doorways. Jane, the New York Girl,  for example, is an artist and a bit of a klutz, ‘with a bony face, high cheekbones and powdered over freckles, seemed a little tugged to the one side.’ Stan travels  Route 17 to New York on the train, leaving his wife and kids behind, to measure up her art for the aluminium frames he installs. He’s shy, but she’s got his measure and he’s got hers. They have a working affair. When he’s working in New York, she meets him and gets a baby sitter for her boy.

Updike is good at when sex becomes love and usually the kick is the narrator looking back with regret and the high of nostalgia for what had been and what could have been. The past is the future in reverse. Yeh, I get that. It’s a man’s world that is constantly expanding, but the choices for women, well, that’s a different story. Try Elena Ferrante for that one. Or if you stick your hands over your ears for the over-exuberant rant try Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman.


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