THE PROLIFIC PROSE GIVES WAY TO A SPARE DESCRIPTION IN THIS STORY
THE LATE NOVELIST John Updike was rarely a man of few words, at least when it came to his ebullient prose. An exception may be his first of two novels about an artist, The Centaur (1963), which won the National Book Award for fiction.
The story is about Peter Caldwell, a young man who, now living in Manhattan, looks back on the life he had with his mother and father in rural Pennsylvania. However, we don’t really discover the adult narrator’s state of mind—indeed, that he is an adult artist—until the very end of the novel.
Throughout the story, we learn that Peter grows up with a grandfather who is a Protestant minister and a father who is a public school science teacher. As to what Peter himself has become, Updike saves until the last. Just before the novel is over, Peter tells us “I am my father’s son. . . . Priest, teacher, artist: the classic degeneration.”
It is the 1960s when Peter gives us his recollections. The former country boy has obviously gone avant-garde. He has a loft in SoHo, lives with a black girlfriend, and muses about Tibetan lamas, yin and yang, Freud, and oriental sex mysticism.
We had hints of Peter's artistic fate, of course. During his youth, he had visited the local museum. There, he saw clumsy paintings by local artists, which “nevertheless radiated the innocence and hope, the hope of seizing something and holding it fast, that enters whenever a brush touches canvas.” Peter wanted to do this, too, someday.
In all, The Centaur's narrative about a brief period in Peter's youth is a story of his father’s sacrifices for his family, especially for a son who turns out quite different, ending up a modernist, urban artist. The genius of The Centaur, though, is that Updike has modeled this somewhat mundane American tale on the Greek myth of Chiron, “the noblest and wisest of the centaurs.” It thus becomes a strange, evocative family reminiscence.
In the Greek legend, Chiron is seriously wounded by an arrow, but is unable to die because of his immortality. He can escape that pain only by giving up his life for his son, Prometheus, who would also be doomed otherwise. It is a story of parental self-sacrifice (and in Greek mythology, at least, sacrifice for a greater good, since Prometheus can now give fire to humans).
In Updike’s retelling of the myth, Olympus, the home of Chiron, becomes Olinger High School outside Alton, Pa., in 1947. Chiron becomes Peter’s father, George Caldwell. He endures both real and mythological pain as a science teacher bedeviled by a school bureaucracy. Mixing mythic fantasy with reality, the novel recounts how one day in science class, for example, a student shoots Caldwell with an arrow (as in the Greek myth). After class, Caldwell tries to extract the arrow from his leg (and school life simply goes on).
The Caldwell family story is about father George’s disappointments in life. He once had been a high school sports hero. He was also a brave soldier in the war. Now he is locked into a dull career, hoping to “stay in there” to retire with a pension.
Peter, the son, also has his problems, afflicted with a skin condition and tending toward being a loner. He watches his father’s life. Through it all, of course, Peter’s father is making sacrifices (that is, simply rearing the family) so that his son can make his own future choices.
By the time of The Centaur, Updike had already written his first Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom novel, Rabbit, Run (1960), which, according to the critics, has the underlying theme of a suburbanite trying to escape his humdrum life. The same mood infuses The Centaur. Although George Caldwell is never able to escape (as he’d like), his son apparently does, having made it to New York and to the 1960s art scene.
Updike, who died in 2009, has made The Centaur fairly autobiographical, granted that the novel’s main feature is its linkage to Greek mythology. Updike was reared in Reading, Pa., and his father was a school teacher. Updike also left the countryside for the Ivy League and the big city. He is obviously grateful for the sacrifices that his father (and mother, an aspiring writer) made for him, though his novels do comment acidly on the conformist lives of his parents’ generation.
That an artist appears in an early Updike novel makes sense, since he’d been one himself, sort of. At Harvard he was a cartoonist (and writer) for the satirical The Harvard Lampoon. He received an art scholarship to Oxford University, putting him on the fence about which career—illustration or writing—he might pursue. Famed editor E.B. White met him and tipped the balance, offering Updike a job at The New Yorker (to write the witty “Talk of the Town” column).
Updike became a chronicler of modern-day life and anxiety, often putting large doses of sex and religion—two topics that fascinated him—into his plots. Near the end of his life, Updike wrote a second novel (of twenty-eight) about an artist, Seek My Face (2002), the tale of a one-day interview with an elderly female artist named Hope, whose recollections tell the story of postwar American art. Unlike The Centaur, the artist's character is revealed from the start, and in depth, whereas with Peter-the-adult-artist, only at the end do we learn where he has ended up—in New York, feeling sad sympathy for his father, apparently. And we learn this in a few spare, almost oblique, references in the novel’s final pages.