At 864 pages, 103 stories, and roughly three pounds, this volume, which collects almost all the short stories from the approximate first half of John Updike's writing life, is a testament to many things, not least Updike's prodigious work habits (reputedly three pages a day, six days a week). But what makes this collection more than the standard anthology accorded the magisterial (or dead) literary figure is that twenty-two years' worth of stories have been arranged in a fictive chronology that tracks Updike's protagonists from adolescence to middle age. The result is not only that these disparate stories find their place as part of larger narratives but also that Updike's artistry—normally glimpsed in sections, like a person through window slats—is wholly and deeply seen. Or, to put it in pop-culture terms, this is the boxed set.
And, as music lovers know, much can be learned or relearned by experiencing a familiar artist's work this way. Among the more trenchant reminders here is that early Updike, as in his Olinger stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s, was very, very good, in possession of a subtly ominous metaphysical bent that wouldn't emerge again as effectively until his stories about divorce and single life a decade later. Another is that Updike stood almost alone among the writers of his time in not thinking that suburban Americans were uninteresting or insipid, and in never mistaking the inhabitants for the surroundings. But the overarching (and somewhat depressing) conclusion is that Updike is one of the few American authors for whom writerly craft remains the essence of fiction. Though his aesthetic occasionally traffics in the obscure, far more often his filigreed sentences remind us what an outright pleasure it is to engage the refined sensibility of a writer who attempts to reflect on things in an interesting way instead of thinking himself interesting because of what he reflects on. Indeed, these older stories resolutely affirm that no one so frequently wrings elegies from the ordinary as Updike (for proof, reread "Plumbing," "The Day of the Dying Rabbit," or the exquisite "Wife-Wooing").