One might expect a novel like Updike’s The Centaur to be to a novelist what the Iran-Contra hearings were to Ronald Reagan: one last entertaining gasp of semi-lucidity in what will later be recognized as the early days of his unfortunate Alzheimer’s. In other words, this novel is kind of nuts. But it was written in 1962, when Updike was only fifty years old, and he went on to write another 23 novels, 15 collections of short stories, dozens of collections of poetry and essays, and the odd play here and there. So we’ll think of The Centaur as a playful experiment in what was really still the early stages of Updike’s remarkable career.
Here’s the premise: George Caldwell is a high school science teacher. At the same time, though, he is also Chiron, the “noblest centaur.” His son Peter is a fairly ordinary mid-century American high school kid interested in art and in his classmate Penny, but Peter is also Prometheus. The psoriasis that covers his back, chest, and arms in angry scabs prefigures the wounds Prometheus bears when he is chained to his rock and pecked at by birds for eternity. Caldwell’s lascivious and power-hungry boss, Zimmerman, is Zeus, and the girls’ gym teacher, Vera Hummel, is Aphrodite and is married to a local mechanic who stands in for Hephaestus (I was hoping that in creating the voluptuous Vera and her staid mechanic husband that Updike was going for a Great Gatsby reference, but that was before I realized JUST HOW MUCH Greek mythology was at work in this novel. And besides, Vera doesn’t die like Myrtle Wilson. She’s Aphrodite after all; she’s immortal). Updike includes an index of mythological references at the back of the book under this italicized heading: “Compiled at my wife’s suggestion. Chiron and Prometheus, being ubiquitous, are omitted. Not all characters have a stable referent; Diefendorf, for example, is now a centaur, now a merman, and sometimes even Hercules” (301). This explanation really made me sit up and pay attention: Diefendorf is a thoroughly minor and forgettable character in this novel, and if a character like Diefendorf can play three different mythological roles without my even noticing them, well sheesh. Just sheesh.
I am a B- student of Greek mythology. I studied it in elementary school and enjoyed it, and when I was teaching The Odyssey to ninth graders I needed to reacquaint myself with the basics, but I never really mastered all the familial relations between the various gods and goddesses and demigods and humans – the endless sagas of who raped whom while wearing what kind of disguise and that sort of thing. When I was teaching, there was usually a student or two in each class who either had been inundated with Greek mythology in middle school (middle schools seem to specialize in inundation: most 9th graders come to high school having been inundated with something in middle school English: either Greek mythology or grammar or the writing of trite autobiographical poetry. Balance is not something that middle schools do well) or had gone through a phase at some point when they were obsessed with Greek mythology themselves. All I had to do was pose some basic general questions and then sit back while these expert students taught the class. Then I got to say “Good job!” so it looked as if I had the matter under control all along.
I responded to this novel the way I’ve responded to each of the six or so novels I’ve read by John Updike, which is to say that I found the first hundred or so pages to be absolutely captivating, and then I more or less lost interest without ever losing my admiration for what Updike was doing. In the first chapter, Caldwell is teaching astronomy to a rowdy class of misbehaving teenagers when one of his students shoots him in the ankle with an arrow. Caldwell is so stunned by the pain and by the audacity of his students that he leaves class and walks across the street to the shop of Hummel the mechanic, where Hummel uses his tools to remove the embedded arrow, urging Caldwell to go to Zimmerman and complain about the incident. Caldwell declines, citing the fact that Zimmerman is out to get him. Sure enough, when he returns to his class, Caldwell finds Zimmerman in the room, ready to reprimand Caldwell for leaving class. Zimmerman ends up deciding to sit in on the rest of class, during which the class is rambunctious and Caldwell is stressed and distracted. The day ends with a written reprimand from Caldwell, who assumes that Zimmerman is out to get him fired.
There are mythological parallels to everything that happens in this first chapter. Google them. Or better yet, find a sixth grader to explain them to you.
Updike is a master of detail. As a result, parts of this novel are painfully slow. Chapter 2 details Peter Caldwell’s struggle to get out of bed on a cold morning. Plenty of characterization happens here: Peter’s closeness with his mother and their Oedipal tendency to band together to ridicule George, his anxiety over his psoriasis, his obsession with art (studying it, not creating it), his determination to leave his small Pennsylvania town for the big city, and the physical strategies he uses to cope with rising from bed on a cold morning in an isolated rural house that lacks heat and indoor plumbing. While he is trying to summon to courage to throw off the covers, he overhears his parents talking about the fact that George is convinced that “something” is growing in his stomach. He thinks he has cancer or some other kind of serious illness, and he makes plans to go to the doctor that afternoon.
George Caldwell is a loving husband and father and is devoted to Peter, but he is so, so pathetic. Just as he is a total failure at controlling his students and refuses to complain even when a student shoots him with an arrow, his entire path through life is a passive one. He readily admits that he became a teacher because he knew he couldn’t have done anything else. He recognizes that he is not a very good teacher (although a lot of talk is thrown around about how beloved he is by his former students) and is a terrible coach of the school swim team. When his star swimmer, Diefendorf, loses a key race, Caldwell consoles him by saying, “If I was any kind of a coach, Diefy, you’d be king of the country; you’re a natural” (141). This is Caldwell’s general attitude toward Peter – he says and does whatever he can think of to elevate Peter while denigrating himself as a father. He also readily shares confidences with Peter about his professional failures, including his written reprimand from Zimmerman and the fact that he witnessed what he thinks was a romantic moment between Zimmerman and the president of the Parent-Teacher Association. Peter recognizes that his father is pathetic and inept but at the same time is overwhelmed by love for him and worry about whatever illness may be eating away at his body.
When Caldwell and Peter leave home in chapter 2, they end up being away from home for three days. First their car breaks down at night, after Caldwell’s medical appointment and his swim meet, and they stay in a terrible local hotel. Caldwell is able to use his status as a beloved local teacher to secure a room for them in spite of the fact that he can’t pay for it (he admits to Peter that he has only 22 cents in his bank account). Then, after a second day of school, more appointments (Caldwell needs to have a tooth extracted too; his body is literally rotting away), and a basketball game, it starts to snow and Caldwell isn’t able to drive his newly-repaired car up the steep dirt road that leads to their house, so they spend that night in the Hummels’ guest bed. Over the course of these three days, Peter becomes more and more consumed by worry for his father and by discomfort as he spends three days without bathing or changing his clothes, which makes his psoriasis worse. These days are marked by any number of encounters with friends, colleagues, medical professionals, and random strangers, all of whom draw out the same sorts of pathetic, self-deprecating remarks that have characterized George Caldwell since the beginning of the novel. George Caldwell is a sufferer. He endures. He’s not really a stoic, since he accepts and even wallows in his pain, but his outlook is a dark one nonetheless. Nothing bad that happens – not even being shot with an arrow by a student in the middle of class – really surprises him. On some level, he wants to die and almost welcomes the fact that his death might be upon him.
I had forgotten how bleak Updike can be. He is almost a modern-day Jonathan Swift in his disgust with the human body, which he portrays as very much the “dying animal” in which Yeats saw the soul imprisoned. All the details of this novel – the Caldwells’ freezing dog who isn’t allowed inside the house, the pain in George’s throbbing tooth, the horrible meanness and corruption of Zimmerman, the swim team’s pathetic defeat in a dingy YMCA pool – contribute to a picture of a mid-century America that is squalid and without hope: the opposite of the brightness with which the postwar years are usually portrayed. Even the town is described in prototypical Updikean terms like “The roofs seem greasily lustrous with sullen inner knowledge” (201). Just as Caldwell is dying (and he is; even though no diagnosis is ever reached, his obituary – which lists no cause of death – provides the full text of chapter 5), his world is dying too. In Greek mythology, there is often an affinity between individual gods and goddesses and the physical earth (Gaia and the land, Poseidon and the sea, etc.), and in this novel George Caldwell is part high-school teacher, part centaur, and part symbol of the decaying Depression-era landscape in which he lives.
I enjoyed this novel, but I don’t recommend it. Is that a weird thing to say? I appreciate the fact that what Updike is doing here is very unique. When you read a lot of novels, you become aware of how few of them are really unique, and you appreciate the ones that are when you discover them. At the same time, when I imagine myself recommending this novel, the first thing that happens is that most people would probably hate it. I think of the time my boss read a book that she thought I recommended (I didn’t) and accosted me in the parking lot at seven in the morning to scream at me for recommending a terrible book. I assume that if I recommend this book on the internet, I will be screamed at in a thousand cyber parking lots, and I don’t want to be screamed at. I guess I’m a little like George Caldwell: I just want to endure without conflict, even though I expect conflict to happen and will accept it without surprise when it arrives.