cover image Toward the End of Time

Toward the End of Time

John Updike. Knopf Publishing Group, $25 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40006-3

One of the several new and exciting paths Updike takes in this magnificent new novel is its futuristic setting--the year 2020, after the Sino-American Conflict has destroyed the government, rendered the Great Plains a radioactive dustbowl and left the management of local affairs to thugs who demand protection money. Yet so subtly is this information introduced into the narrative that what remains paramount is not what has changed in this dangerous new world (although Updike imagines its particulars with brilliant specificity) but what has remained the same: the edgy relationship between the sexes, the wax and wane of the seasons, the pull of love and guilt between generations. Narrator Ben Turnbull begins his story on a snowy November day when a deer that is ravaging his property in coastal Massachusetts becomes the target of his ruthlessly efficient wife Gloria's zeal to eradicate what she cannot tame. In segues of time slippage, Ben imagines himself in other eras of history when brute force destroys civilization: among Egyptian grave robbers, as a monk of Lindisfarne slaughtered by Norse marauders, as a Nazi guard in a concentration camp. In more mundane moments, he enjoys sexual romps with the whore Deirdre, who may or may not be a metamorphosed deer, just as Gloria may or may not be dead. (She is not--and Deirdre decamps.) Meanwhile, some tough kids take up residence on the property and extort money, and a spectral torus glows in the sky. As the months pass--precisely observed by Ben in detailed, loving descriptions of the flora and fauna of each season--the tone of the book grows more ominous until, sure enough, a lawless incursion of cancer cells invades Ben's body. Updike's prose is --as ever--lush, lyrical and yet poetically precise. His control never wavers as Ben surveys the sorry state of the world in matter-of-fact terms, and the state of his libido, his relationships with Gloria, his children and his proliferating grandchildren in more agitated reflections. As Ben confronts the looming certainty that time is running out for him and for the universe, the narrative sweeps to a bittersweet conclusion befitting a book that has all the hallmarks of a classic. 75,000 first printing; BOMC main selection. (Oct.)