Pairs Well With:
A tumbler of Knob Creek Straight Rye, served straight, no chaser; a clean, slightly aggressive spirit with a lovely low toned sweetness to remind you of summer days gone bye.
Author: John Updike
Rating: 3 Out Of 5 Whiskey Shots
The local poorhouse in a small New Jersey town is getting ready to host its annual craft fair—a wonderful break from monotony for the aged inmates of the establishment, and a chance to earn a little extra pocket money. But rain is on the horizon, threatening to end this yearly chance at gaiety, and the new poorhouse prefect is doing nothing to help the temperaments of his charges. But really, how much trouble could a group of reminiscing elderly folk be?
Full of luscious prose, wonderful characters, and a sepia toned lens of nostalgia, Updike’s debut novel certainly breaks the mold when it comes to the tradition of American storytelling. While generally lacking in any dynamic forward motion, the plumbing of the depths of the diverse cast of characters is incredibly enticing. Void of any absolute villains or idealized heroes, the examination into the lives of the elderly and forgotten will no doubt cause the reader a great deal of introspection—as it did for this reviewer.
The Poorhouse Fair was very unique, even from its opening—a spat between two of the elderly tenants of the titular poorhouse, which is essentially a state run retirement home. The prose of Updike hearkens back to the days of Wolfe and Faulkner, full of vivid imagery. The use of living language is found in great amounts throughout this small volume, and certainly appealed to my love of poetic verse.
The characters, led by the reminiscent Hook and the stoic Conner, were so aptly rendered that I wondered if this work might have been semi-autobiographical. There is a multiplicity of facets shown of each character, no matter how minor their presence, that will leave you loving none of them completely, and hating none of them entirely. Updike masterfully draws the reader into seeing the characters—the lot of them—as real people, full of virtue and fault, which is something not often seen in modern fiction.
Sadly, the lack of forward momentum, of any great driving undercurrent leaves the book tasting rather dull after a short time. There is a hinting of a possible conflict when a defaced cat is shot dead, and when the wall encircling the grounds collapses, however these instances are allowed to diffuse completely, leading to nothing but the occasional reference later in the work. At just over 200 pages, this is by no means a long book, however it did take me several days to finish it, merely from needing a break from the lack of momentous interest.
The ending of Updike’s debut is also sorely lacking. A jumble of dissociated speech from a dwindling crowd, there is no coherent close. It seems to end in the middle of a thought, and I actually checked to see if there was a page or two missing from the end of the book.
Corking The Bottle:
While by no means an extraordinary work, The Poorhouse Fair is a book I would recommend all aspiring writers read. Written by a two time Pulitzer Prize winning author, this book demonstrates that personal growth in this incredibly difficult craft is always possible, and that persistence in perfecting one’s prose and art can yield legendary results. So, while The Poorhouse Fair is certainly not memorable in any great way, it is without a doubt an important book for all writers to read and learn from.