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The Centaur by John Updike

The Centaur

by John Updike

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3. The Centaur by John Updike

As far back as about 4th grade, I have loved writing stories. I never received much encouragement from the teachers until I reached high school. William A. Votto, Jr. was my junior year English teacher. He liked an essay I wrote about a football game kick off, and he encouraged me to write. I spent numerous afternoons talking with him about reading and writing. He became the first person to plant the idea that reading and writing as closely bound together. Bill Votto also introduced me to The New Yorker magazine. I stopped at a news stand on the way home that day and bought the latest issue. It had a story by John Updike. I immediately fell in love with Updike’s masterful use of the English language.

Updike became my favorite writer. He was also the first writer I began gathering as many of his writings as I could. Today, my personal library has well over 340 books by and about John Updike. I was also lucky enough to meet him on several occasions. I even attended a writer’s conference in Boston one year and heard him speak. March 18th would have been his 81st birthday. He died in January 2009.

Of all his books, The Centaur is my absolute favorite. In fact it securely holds first place at the top of my favorite novels list. I once told him about this choice for his best work, and he said, “Well, it’s my favorite, too. It is the warmest story I ever wrote.” In 1964, it won the National Book Award for fiction.

The Centaur tells the story of George Caldwell, science teacher at Olinger High School. The fictional town of Olinger is the setting for one of his numerous collections of stories. Interwoven with the story of George and his brilliant son, Peter, is the myth of the centaur, Chiron, the teacher of Achilles. Peter plays the role of Prometheus. In the myth, Chiron is wounded, but since he is immortal, he must suffer for all eternity the pain of his wound. He gives up his life for Prometheus.

For a sample of Updike’s power with words, I turned to a random page and began reading,

“My father and I scraped together the change in our pockets and found enough for breakfast at a diner. I had one dollar in my wallet but did not tell him, intending it to be a surprise when things got more desperate. The counter of the diner was lined with workmen soft-eyed and gruff from behind half-asleep still. […] I ordered pancakes and bacon and it was the best breakfast I had had in months. My father ordered Wheaties, mushed the cereal into the milk, ate a few bites, and pushed it away. He looked at the clock. It said 7:25. He bit back a belch; his face whitened and the skin under his eyes seemed to sink against the socket bone. He saw me studying him in alarm and said, ‘I know. I look like the devil. I’ll shave in the boiler room over at the school, Heller has a razor.’ The pale grizzle, like a morning’s frost, of a day-old beard covered his cheeks and chin” (169).

If you have never read Updike, pick a genre – poetry, novels, short stories, or essays on art, books, writers, and philosophy. You will not be disappointed.

--Jim, 1/27/13 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | Feb 15, 2013 |
This book was published in 1962 when, according to the paperback book’s cover, The New York Times could still call Updike “the most significant young (sic) (!!) novelist in America. I obtained a copy for free at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, saving a full 75¢ off the cover price. It was worth every penny.

The base story, which takes place in Pennsylvania in 1947, is pretty simple. A father, George Caldwell, who is a high school science teacher, and his 15-year-old son Peter get stuck in a snow storm a few miles from home. For three days they are unable to coax their car up a fairly steep hill that would allow them to return home. The son observes his father “in action,” only to find that he is somewhat naïve, easily taken advantage of, but generally beloved by those with whom he regularly deals. Updike loves to show how his characters’ weaknesses reduce their own happiness, but somehow make them more human and lovable.

The writing style is pure Updike, showing off. The chapters alternate in styles. The first contains elevated (some might say pretentious) writing in which a great deal of mythology is intermixed to the extent that the reader really can’t tell what actually is supposed to have happened to the characters. Other chapters are simple lucid narratives that ground the reader to the basic story. But even in these chapters, Updike shows a piercing sensitivity to typical human foibles. Here is a description of two former high school athletes:

“They are ex-heroes of the type who, for many years, until a wife or ritual drunkenness or distant employment carries them off, continue to appear at high school athletic events, like dogs tormented by a site where they imagine they have buried something precious. Increasingly old and slack, the apparition of them persists, conjured by that phantasmal procession—indoors and outdoors, fall, winter, and spring—of increasingly young and unknown high school athletes who themselves, imperceptibly, filter in behind them to watch also.”

Although the writing is indeed beautiful, I’m not sure Updike makes the mythological references fit the underlying story as well as he might. The mythical centaur is a half man-half stallion creature: intelligent but also physically powerful and sexually potent. That just doesn’t fit the main character, who is more of a Caspar Milquetoast. Even though he claims, “I never made a decision in my life that wasn’t one hundred per cent selfish,” the previous 216 pages belie that assertion.

Nevertheless, this is a fine book for anyone who enjoys truly expert manipulation of the English language with some penetrating psychological observations.

Evaluation: A large number of mythological characters make their way into grandiose but for me touching and satisfying novel that won the 1964 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Jul 10, 2012 |
One of Updike's three best, according to Updike--on two, this and A Month of Sundays. I add Rabbit at Rest, which I consider his best because of his application of his great theme to Florida--existential isolation of American bourgeoise culture.
In this one, Updike gives a very considerable portrait of both American H.S. education, and of his father, a HS teacher in the forties. If the HS teacher is wounded by an arrow from a student in the forties, no teacher emerges without being wounded now, though our news informs mostly how wounded the students are.
U.S. Ed reform is doomed, especially headed by a coach, Sect'y of Ed Arne Duncan, who has never taught calculus, physics, literature, history--anything which requires more than "Attaboy, you can do it." And in fact, governments discourage an educated populace. Great teachers are killed: Socrates, Christ, and Giordano Bruno, to start a long list. ( )
1 vote AlanWPowers | May 11, 2012 |
Well, it's Updike, so at least it doesn't suck stylistically... but this novel was a failure. In one sense it's the cap to his earliest 'Olinger' material (Olinger Stories, Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm) but it's also a failed experiment, an attempt to wed a mythic subtext to a modern story. like Joyce or Barth, but he just doesn't pull it off. The mythic material isn't well-integrated, the modern family dynamics are underdeveloped. I was expecting to enjoy this, so I was very disappointed -- had to force myself to finish it. ( )
1 vote Crypto-Willobie | Jan 16, 2011 |
Outstanding early novel from Updike. Underrated, and on a par with 'Catcher in the rye' for insights into childhood relationships and growing through adolescence (though this is from the parent perspective). ( )
  ijhodgson | Jan 14, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Purports to tell the story of the evolution of a father's relationship with his son in a small town in modern Pennsylvania. At least this is how the average dopey reader would undertand the story, until, that is, he is confronted with an index ... having belatedly realised that the modren-dress story is a retelling of the legends of classical Greece.
added by KayCliff | editNew Writing 9, Robert Irwin (Dec 12, 2010)
Above all there is that beautiful Updikean wordplay, here manifested in attributive metaphors. Half the sentences in this book could be studied for Updike’s uncanny ability to lay visual markers on unrelated nouns, embedding man-made objects into natural surroundings by modifying the images of the artificial with those of the natural.
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"Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man, earth the creation conceivable to him. He himself is the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth. "
But it was still needful that a life should be given to expiate that ancient sin, -- the theft of fire. It happened that Chiron, noblest of all the Centaurs (who are half horses and half men), was wandering the world in agony from a wound he had received by strange mischance. For, at a certain wedding-feast among the Lapithae of Thessaly, one of the turbulent Centaurs had attempted to steal away the bride. A fierce struggle followed, and in the general confusion, Chiron, blameless as he was, had been wounded by a poisoned arrow. Ever tormented with the hurt and never to be healed, the immortal Centaur longed for death, and begged that he might be accepted as an atonement for Prometheus. The gods heard his prayer and took away his pain and his immortality. He died like any wearied man, and Zeus set him as a shining archer among the stars.
--Old Greek Folk Tales Told Anew
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Caldwell turned and as he turned his ankle received an arrow.
"The Devil and me, Pop," my father said. "I love lies. I tell 'em all day. I'm paid to tell 'em." (Knopf, 1990, p. 49)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0449912167, Paperback)

The Centaur is a modern retelling of the legend of Chiron, the noblest and wisest of the centaurs, who, painfully wounded yet unable to die, gave up his immortality on behalf of Prometheus. In the retelling, Olympus becomes small-town Olinger High School; Chiron is George Caldwell, a science teacher there; and Prometheus is Caldwell’s fifteen-year-old son, Peter. Brilliantly conflating the author’s remembered past with tales from Greek mythology, John Updike translates Chiron’s agonized search for relief into the incidents and accidents of three winter days spent in rural Pennsylvania in 1947. The result, said the judges of the National Book Award, is “a courageous and brilliant account of a conflict in gifts between an inarticulate American father and his highly articulate son.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:14 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell yearns to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lose touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship to Prometheus, The Centaur is one of John Updike's most brilliant and unusual novels, blending the worlds of modern youth and ancient mythology.… (more)

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