A Close Read January/February 2005

Villages, by John Updike

Appraising the substance of style

"Skip Potteiger got Mary Lou Brumbach next door pregnant when she was only seventeen but then he married her so it was all right—by D-Day the baby was in a carriage that Mary Lou pushed back and forth on her way to the Acme, over the shallow troughs that carried roof water out to the gutter and the sidewalk squares that the roots of the horse-chestnut trees were tilting up, tripping you if you were on roller skates." —from Villages, by John Updike (Knopf)

It's an ideal evocation of the mundane, this sentence, from the pregnancy made "all right" by the wedding (a childish concept, except that the town, too, not just the boy from whose point of view the sentence is written, would think the issue so simply resolved and use that very term) to the trips to the grocery store—its name a word flattened until it connotes run-of-the-mill—to the focus on the minutiae of the sidewalk. The villagers are mostly untouched by crisis; ironic, given the times. But Updike packs more than the village's tranquillity into this passage. The heavy ethnicity of the surnames, coupled with the casual, popular mid-century first names, is a shorthand history of American assimilation, and the troughs for roof water thrust the reader neatly into a lawnless Pennsylvania mountain neighborhood, familiar to Updike's readers. The lines aren't flawless—how can Mary Lou be "on her way" to the store and at the same time be pushing the carriage "back and forth"?—but what's a moment of sloppiness when it's followed by such charm? The final bit about the sidewalk squares, with its alliterative ts rattling like skates on bumpy concrete, and its grand trees, and the second person slipping in to make the scene intimate, renders the ordinary positively lovely. The idea of rough patches in a deceptively smooth surface fits perfectly, by the way, with what follows as the paragraph continues: audible quarrels and slammed doors, but no divorces. "Divorces happened elsewhere, in Hollywood and New York." Mary Lou and her baby are so unimportant to this novel as to warrant no second appearance; yet in its authoritative characterization of a particular place and era, and in its unstrained, lyrical precision, this sentence is quintessentially Updikean.

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.
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