Memories of the Ford Administration

byJohn Updike. Knopf, $23.00. The premise of Mr. Updike’s novel is that Retrospect, a historical journal, has asked Alfred Clayton, a lecherous but otherwise undistinguished history instructor at Wayward Junior College (for girls), to provide his recollections of life during the presidency of Gerald Ford. Clayton obliges with an enthusiasm that even he suspects of being excessive. “[Retrospect eds: if too many similes, delete some, much as the heartless mother birds of some species allow the weaker chicks to be pushed from the nest by the stronger.]” One feels for those eds. when “an owl down in the woods by the river issued its sickly interrogative calls like some luminous ectoplasm lumpily pouring.” Along with coldly physiological details of his own fling at adultery, Clayton throws in the unfinished biography of James Buchanan that he was at the time attempting to write. It is a narrative version of Mr. Updike’s already published play about that President—same sources, same interpretation. The purpose of this strange combination of elements is, presumably, to contrast the sexual habits of the 1970s with those of the pre-Civil War United States, which in Mr. Updike’s view contained neither brothels nor abused female slaves. Aside from some amusing jabs at academic society, the novel offers little beyond a display of the author’s increasingly elaborate prose style.