It seemed to me for this sunset hour that the world is our bride, given to us to love, and the terror and joy of the marriage is that we bring to it a nature not our bride's.
We ask ourselves countless questions as we slip into sleep – whether we are alone in the universe, whether we are loved, whether our dreams shall be fulfilled, whether there is any redemption for those who suffer, as well as far more banal inquiries – but there is really only one question. It has been phrased in myriad ways, and cannot be made any simpler than this formula: Is the truth good? If the truth is good, then many different things can be explained, and many different understandings of the world can coalesce into a single understanding, one ultimately benevolent and conciliatory which opens its wings as widely and warmly as the our galaxies' blackest night is suffocating and cold. If the truth is good, then we can be both true and good, because we can embrace the best of news (news, after all, is supposed to impart the truth and little else). We can become the ideal world we have always imagined – yes, even the most gnarled cynics among us R.E.M. cycle into greener pastures – and therewith make the most of our current earthbound dilemmas. We also note that we have defined neither truth nor good. Such entries, you see, are best left to each of us to determine, because some purportedly brave souls – I might prefix a far less flattering modifier – claim that eternal darkness does not scare them in any way. Who's afraid of nothingness and extinction? Perhaps the narrator of the unusual foursome of tales found in this fine collection.
Our protagonist is David Kern, an important name for an allegedly unimportant writer. A likely member of the Pennsylvania Dutch, Kern is a German core or nucleus, the center of it all. When he travels he misses his "wife's body, that weight of pure emotion" beside him, and is "enough of a father to feel lost out of [his] nest of little rustling souls." From his first observations, on the "bare earth that has been smoothed and packed firm by the passage of human feet," we learn nothing except perhaps the most important fact of someone's life: namely, that he is a God-fearing man, a fact he will later deny, if indirectly. His faith, or what he has come to understand as his faith – faith being the most personalized experience someone can have – occupies our second tale, which brandishes its gerundial title with some skepticism. Yet the whole process of attending to one's faith, literally and figuratively, offers some distinct advantages:
It is the most available democratic experience. We vote less than once a year. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one equals one.
How soon after this communion does David Kern, a believer who outwardly plays the lapsed Christian, "hasten home ... to assume the disguise – sweaters and suntans – of a non-churchgoer"? Later events, in the fourth and vastly superior part of this uneven quartet about one soul, suggest that David Kern is entrenched in what we may term nostalgic faith. Nostalgic faith is the crutch of the romantic doubter, a belief in the past, a belief in all the love we have given and received in our time on earth, a belief that we cope with being a worthless link on an eternal chain of death by loving what we have as intensely and honestly as we can. Yet a profound defeatism shadows such sentiments. When he tells his wife that after a few centuries their "names would be forgotten," their "nation would be a myth," and their "continent [would be] an ocean," we wonder why we even bother to love. When, much later on, he drives his beloved titular vehicle essentially into hyperspace, losing all sense and sensation, we pity a soul that has replaced an awe for what our world is with an awe for what our world is not. Never is it implied, however, that Kern might have resigned himself to being merely a conduit, to living life so as to report it, in a beautified and much-manipulated form, on the typed page. Something of his faith persists, even if it has devolved into an adoration of nature's vicissitudes and a tepid acceptance of our own.
Updike is twentieth-century America's greatest literary genius, and there really shouldn't be a debate (we will excuse those who name this author instead, but he was not, strictly speaking, "made in America"). Those who tell you otherwise are either envious – Updike's easy and prolific output leads the average, bloated mind to recur blubberingly to its own platitudes – or simply swine before his purling streams. Not all his works make our "scalp freeze" (a description he bestows, unfortunately, upon a jazz piece), and the winsome if somewhat trite narrative about a road-killed feline is impaired by the same pathos common to all works which try to pawn off animal misery as a metaphor for our own. It is better simply to list the passages that really do run up our spine: "There was a strong sepia flavor of early Christianity"; "There was not that swishing company of headlights that along an American road throws us into repeated relief"; "They served me with that swift grace that comes in a country where food is still one of the pleasures"; "I was patriotically thrilled by Alton's straight broad streets and superb equipment of institutions"; "the new doctor's office ... was furnished with a certain raw sophistication [as] rippling music leaked from the walls, which were hung with semi-professional oils"; "The grinning girl was lost in this onslaught of praise and clung to the shreds of her routine." Many other pleasures obtain, especially when David goes to visit his terminally ill father and is told by his mother, before anything more than niceties are exchanged, that the old man has lost his faith. The few minutes they have together, interrupted only by a well-meaning young woman from a Lutheran congregation, are supposed to be allotted either to the transmission of final secrets or wisdoms or to a prolonged and miserable farewell. Neither one takes place because David, a believer by disposition, has thought too much about the one thing in life that, in its totality, exceeds human reason, even if a very religious person will assure you (and be correct) that there is nothing more reasonable than faith. That is why at one point he sees a "catastrophe" hidden behind "each face," and why at another, he perceives the appropriateness of being a "stranger in church." And what about the truth and the good? Let's just say David has gone through enough of one to recognize the other.