cover image Memories of the Ford Administration

Memories of the Ford Administration

John Updike. Knopf Publishing Group, $23 (371pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41681-4

Irony, whimsy, supple prose, pungent imagery, penetrating social observation and a focus on his protagonist's libido are the familiar elements Updike brings to his 39th book (after Rabbit at Rest and Odd Jobs). But there is more: a biography/historical novel interpolated into the main story makes this an uneven, hybrid work. Ostensibly preparing a paper on the Ford administration, narrator Alfred Clayton, a professor at a New Hampshire junior college, finds his impressions of the period inextricable from the events of his own life at the time. Epitomizing the sexual liberation of that pre-AIDS era, he had begun an affair with a colleague's spouse, Genevieve Mueller, whom he dubs the Perfect Wife, in contrast to his own mate--messy, scatty Norma, the Queen of Disorder. His halfhearted attempts to divorce the one and marry the other are as inconclusive and bumbling as was (by implication) President Ford's lackluster half-term. Meanwhile, Alf is writing a biography (never finished) of James Buchanan, whose administration immediately predated the Civil War. Realizing that his recollections of his own experiences in the 1970s are as unreliable as were contemporary accounts of Buchanan's life and times, Alf concludes that it is impossible to arrive at the truth of any event. Updike's attempt to weld his two stories together is not always successful. Alf's sexual exploits are, by design, conveyed with more energy than Buchanan's aborted romance, and the details of Cabinet meetings attending the crisis at Fort Sumter retard the narrative's pace. Yet Updike's skill as a raconteur overcomes his novel's hobbled structure; in the end, his account is social history of a high order. BOMC alternate. (Nov.)