IT AIN'T TARBOX. The place is called Greenwood this time. And John Updike presents no magic circle of friends to be destroyed by adultery and the blight of gratified desire as he did in Couples. All that the author seems to have up his sleeve is a couple of pairs, one of your everyday unbalanced domestic quadrangles, in fact. Jerry loves Sally Mathias—and Ruth Conant, but is married only to Ruth. Sally loves herself and Jerry—but is married to Richard Mathias. Richard, who sees himself as "a teacher of worldliness," once had a brief, slick affair with Ruth, etc.
The date is 1962, a year before the action of Couples occurred. The author has always been preoccupied by the uses of infidelity. Fifteen years ago, he would have us believe, Freudian tolerance and the Pill had not yet quite eroded the dangers and moral impediments involved in extramarital love. In any case Jerry, actively religious, thirtyish and ten years into a good marriage, is not one to take love lightly, in or out of wedlock. He wants to divorce Ruth and make an honest woman of Sally. He agonizes over his children. He revels in sweet pain and postures about the divided allegiances that plague him. He also collects locks of Sally's hair. In short, Jerry strikes the reader as a twerp of twerps. At their trysts the two revert to sheer teen-agery, '50s style. They find themselves ravished by love lyrics that come over the radio. They exchange mysterious, monosyllabic endearments. "Hey." "Hi." Jerry gives up smoking. Updike reports: "He wanted his kisses to taste clean." Cupid's darts have all but done them in.
Yet the author holds this man in curious affection, as he did Piet Hanema, the star-crossed archadulterer in Couples. The fact seems curious, since most of the sense in the book is given to Ruth. During the marriage she has cared well for Jerry and the children. But she has never taken seriously his asthmatic insomnia and an accompanying sense of the moment-by-moment fleetingness of life. "Dust to dust," she murmurs complacently and goes to sleep.
Her view of the book's crisis: "An innocent man and a greedy woman had fornicated and Ruth could not endorse the illusions that made it seem more than that. They were exaggerators, both of them." The reader agrees, and is inclined to root for Ruth who wants to save her marriage. He is also inclined to reflect on what appear to be similarities between Jerry and Updike himself: that galloping insomnia, for instance. Like Updike's own recently divorced wife, Ruth is a Unitarian minister's daughter. Like Updike and his wife, Ruth and Richard once went to art school together: "Cadmium yellow danced boldly through her pears," Updike reports. "His gift was for line."
A lady-or-the-tiger ending leaves doubt as to whether or not the unlashing of this slender tale will eventually consign Jerry and Sally to each other's arms in holy matrimony. It is difficult to care very much one way or another. Even so, Updike's old white writing magic has not lost its skill. He can still set a domestic scene, describe a sleeping child or evoke the sights and sounds of the marriage bed-and-bored sharply enough to bring a tear to the eye of the recording angel.
Readers in search of another adult serial may be forgiven if they switch to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman before finding out what is really on Updike's mind in Marry Me. Through the evident clash between sense and sympathy, Jerry Conant emerges as one of Updike's ambiguous truth carriers. It is by no coincidence, comrades, that being with Sally symbolically cures both his insomnia and his fear of death. All of Jerry's apparent follies—the reversion to calf love, the dramatic moral posturings, the delusive passion—are meant to be regarded as signs of life, as useful gestures in the long holding action against death which everyone loses eventually.
By contrast, a sensible modern materialist like Richard, who takes love easy and regards sex as an urge that can be indulged without guilt or passion, seems only half alive. Love and life, in short, gain savor from a sense of sin and self-denial. The stricture against eating the apple and the sword in Tristram and Iseult's bed are both powerful sharpeners of appetite. This is not artistic news, though the observation is now unfashionable. That being so, whether Marry Me is part apologia or all fictional sermonette, one of its points could well be dismissed as the higher hedonism in a nutshell (forbidden fizz is always the sweetest). A pity. The book may be a brief for moral absolutism cleverly put in terms that Masters and Johnson might take to heart.