Friday, August 9, 2013

The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd

John Updike (1932–2009)
From John Updike: Collected Later Stories

Calista Moon and John Updike, 1981. In the background is the helicopter that had crashed while taking them to the top of Auyantepui in Venezuela. Photograph by Bart Moon, courtesy of UNC's American Diplomacy website.
“As helicopter crashes go it was a gentle one,” recalls Bart Moon about one of the most mortifying events he experienced during the years he served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Venezuela. He had been entrusted with the comfort and security of embassy guests John and Martha Updike on the last day of their week-long stay in early 1981, one in a series of visits by American cultural dignitaries. The group had started the morning by flying a Cessna plane to a small airport, where they transferred to a large helicopter that would take them for a picnic at the top of Auyantepui, a tepui (“table-top mountain”) protruding about 3,000 feet from the surrounding jungle. As they approached the landing spot atop the tepui, the helicopter suddenly plunged, crashed, and toppled onto its side. Fortunately, other than a scraped leg, nobody was hurt, and the party spent the afternoon traipsing around the top of the mountain:
We took dozens of heroic-survivor photos [and] peered nervously over the edges of this new world. . . . Meanwhile, John, the essence of cool, was busy indulging a surprising passion for botany. . . . At the same time Martha and [Bart's wife] Calista had wandered off on an exploratory walk of their own. This was worrisome because the mist that would engulf us from time to time was so dense that one could hardly see one step ahead. Because we were situated close to the rim of our island in the sky, one misstep and our party of eleven would be ten.
A few hours later, two freight helicopters rescued the party and brought them back to the airport. The day’s adventure wasn’t quite over, however. One of the rescue helicopters, upon landing, clipped and damaged the wing of the group’s Cessna. “We would have to go slowly, but the plane was perfectly safe,” Moon was assured. “I didn’t buy it for a minute,” he adds, but they all made it safely back to Caracas. During the final leg of their trip, John wrote a note for the Moons to give to their daughter, a college student back in Massachusetts. It read, “Dear Claudia, Your parents are very brave.” In later years, Updike sent several cards and letters to the Moons, including one that described the afternoon on the top of Auyantepui as “easily my happiest time in Venezuela.”

Living through two crashes in a single day didn’t slow down Updike a bit. In 1981 he saw Rabbit Is Rich through to publication; it spent twenty-three weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and would become the first (and still the only) novel to win the American literary trifecta: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award (then known as the American Book Award). He also completed the interconnected stories that would be collected as Bech Is Back and finished several new short works (the first of which, “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd,” was accepted and published by The New Yorker soon after his return to the States; the second, “Venezuela for Visitors,” was inspired by his trip).

Updike included “The Lovely Troubled Daughters” in the 1987 collection Trust Me. Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, the novelist Marilynne Robinson singled out the story for praise:
“The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd” describes the grown children who once played together at the peripheries of the buoyant social lives of their young parents. . . . They still haunt their hometown “as if searching for something they missed.” The transgressions the narrator remembers rather nostalgically, seeking to account for the fear he sees in these young women, are not remarkable—suburban cordiality overstepping its limits. He sees their importance for the first time in these inhibited lives. The disproportion between cause and effect, the manners of one generation sealing the fate of the next, set the conventional in a sharp, transforming light.
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Notes: Among the cultural references in Updike’s story: D.R. (page 118) stands for Design Research, a furniture and housewares retailer in Harvard Square that closed in 1978; Stingers (p. 119) are cocktails composed of three parts brandy, one part crème de menthe; Steiff animals (p. 120) are collectible stuffed animals made in Germany; Stop & Shop (p. 121) is a New England supermarket chain.

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Why don’t they get married? You see them around town, getting older, little spinsters already, pedalling bicycles to their local jobs or walking up the hill by the rocks with books in their arms. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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