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The Centaur

by John Updike

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing

Harold Augenbraum writes:

John Updike is my favorite bourgeois erotic fantasist, staring into the face of God’s good grace and extracting the coupling of a centaur and a naked goddess emerging from a small town swimming pool (pace Botticelli) or the school principal rutting with the chubby girl in the third row of the science class as the other students file out when the bell rings (and, lest we forget, his introduction of the Golden Shower into the mainstream literary purchase of suburban households just a few decades ago). And then turning the whole shebang into the search for meaning of a “centaur’s” psoriatic son, speckled with hidden dry rot and lusting after the pink-agora-sweatered plumpish girl, her plush, white arms emerging from knitwear like alabaster legs. Updike’s reputation has roller-coastered through the years, and the image of women he has created has deservedly been attacked, from thrilling to unfortunate depravity, and, as Toni Morrison once said about Norman Mailer, “an almost willful obtuseness about women.” Perhaps I am less put off by the portrayal of women in this book because the characters blame themselves more than others and fault their own inadequacies. In The Centaur my general unhappiness with Updike’s women disappears in the face of the focus on man and son, often half frozen in the snow and seeming to get stuck at every turn, their modes of transportation and communication faulty, their suspicions of the world aroused, their entry into the underbelly a preface to the creation of art.

Above all there is that beautiful Updikean wordplay, here manifested in attributive metaphors. Half the sentences in this book could be studied for Updike’s uncanny ability to lay visual markers on unrelated nouns, embedding man-made objects into natural surroundings by modifying the images of the artificial with those of the natural. Updike passed away early this year, and perhaps when the encomia end and the outcries subside the time will come to truly re-assess his achievement both as a chronicler and a stylist of the American idiom.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9780394418810

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Bernard Malamud for Idiots First
  • Mary McCarthy for The Group
  • Thomas Pynchon for V
  • Harvey Swados for The Will

Fiction Judges that Year: John Cheever, Robie Macauley, Philip Rahv

The Year in Literature:

  • The Pulitzer Prize was not given for Fiction.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Portions of The Centaur first appeared in Esquire and The New Yorker. This was John Updike’s first of two National Book Awards, and he was also awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1998.

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Reader Comments (1)

what I've been finding most interesting about this review of the national book award winners is looking at the other candidates. Sometimes one sees another book that has "aged better" or at least had a longer life... while no one would disagree with Updike's value, still, it's amazing now to think that V. wasn't recognized for the great classic it is. It towers above the other finalists, at least in my view.

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterelisabeth
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