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John Updike: Novels 1968-1975 (slipcased edition)

$25.95
This second volume in the Library of America edition of John Updike’s novels collects three unforgettable books from the late 1960s and the 70s that capture the turmoil of an America undergoing heady social change on several fronts at once—sexual, social, and moral. Always a master of meticulous observation and subtle characterization, Updike turned in this period to a wider social canvas and in so doing reached new heights of critical and commercial success, including an appearance on the cover of Time magazine.

When Couples was published in 1968 it achieved instant notoriety because of its candor about the sexual revolution, then in full swing. (The Los Angeles Times called it “America’s Most Explicitly Sexual Novel Ever.”) Shocking, entertaining, and searingly honest about human passions and their costs, Updike’s saga of the “post-Pill paradise” of the Kennedy era details the rampant, jubilant, and inevitably complicated episodes of promiscuity among a tight-knit social set in the placid, respectable town of Tarbox, an hour north of Boston. Often compared with the era’s other landmark American novels about sex, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, it remains a scorching good read.

The second installment in the Rabbit series, Rabbit Redux (1971), finds Updike’s signature protagonist, Harry Angstrom, caught up in a whirlwind of personal tumult that mirrors—and illuminates—the upheaval of the late 60s. When his wife leaves him, Harry, now thirty-six, opens his home to Jill, a drug-addicted teenager, and her companion, Skeeter, a black Vietnam veteran and radical. Abandoning the drab rhythms and narrow conformity of his past life, Harry must confront how “we were all brought up to want things and maybe the world isn’t big enough for all that wanting.”

In A Month of Sundays (1975), a short tale of one man’s disgrace, resonant with the concurrent unraveling of the Nixon presidency, Updike engages with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in ways playful and profound. Pastor Thomas Marshfield is banished to a desert retreat after his serial adulteries have become too much for his church to tolerate. Charged by the estimable Ms. Prynne with recording his life in a diary, Marshfield offers himself to the reader as “a Christian minister, and an American” who lays bare his soul with a mixture of irony, celebration, and self-justification.

Rounding out the volume are two short pieces that shed light on the novels as well as “Couples: A Short Story,” the origin of the novel of the same name, written in 1963 but deemed unsuitable for publication by The New Yorker.

Christopher Carduff, editor, is Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal. He is the editor of John Updike’s posthumous collections Higher Gossip (essays and criticism), Always Looking (writings on art), Selected Poems, and Collected Stories, and of the Library of America William Maxwell edition.

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