In praise of older books: Couples by John Updike (1968)
The couples of Updike’s New England town have lots of sex – but there are consequences
John Updike: the most sensual of writers. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Files/Reuters
Tarbox, a seaside town somewhere in New England. It’s like Greystones, with more sun, lots more snow and “the violet smudge that was the tip of Cape Cod”.
It’s the 1960s. The Kennedys are in the White House. The world is fresh and new. Updike’s couples live in this idyll. The seasons move in a round of sports, “touch football, skiing, basketball, sailing, tennis, touch football again”. Their lives skid on a slick of alcohol. Martinis, with gin and vermouth, “beery beach picnics”; “local liquor-store Bordeaux”. And they have sex. Lots of sex.
Updike is the most sensual of writers. Licking, sucking, tasting, smelling, nuzzling, slithering, stroking. All the book’s characters, women and men, love it. And Updike loves writing it. The Garden of Eden with no snake in sight. Until Piet, the red-haired builder, married to the lovely Angela, meets Foxy.
“ ‘What did you make of the new couple?’ ” Piet asks Angela after the first party to which Foxy and husband Ken, have been invited. It’s an innocent question. Piet is already occupied, “milking two cows”, having an affair with Georgene, wife of Freddy, the local dentist. Piet’s a builder; the Whitmans need work done on their house. He calls to discuss the job. Foxy’s pregnant and alone. “He turned her body on the lathe of the light, shaping her with his hands and tongue.”
Tarbox men are easy going. But not Ken. When he discovers Foxy’s infidelity, the sky falls. And it’s not just the adultery. After giving birth to Ken’s child, Foxy has become pregnant by Piet. In the days before Roe vs Wade, abortions were hard to find. Freddy, the dentist, has a friend who will do the needful. But Freddy has a price. Piet’s Angela must sleep with him.
Ah, the sting in the tale. Dallas ends the Kennedys’ Camelot. The abortion ends the couples’ idyll. Read it for the fun, the excitement, the sheer physical pleasure. And the lesson to be learned. Consequences: there are always consequences.