Books: Do-Gooder Undone

THE POORHOUSE FAIR (185 pp.)—John Updike—Knopf ($3.50).

Novelist John Updike's literary voice is low and gentle; he chooses a quiet theme and carefully understates it to the threshold of inaudibility. In his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, he picks the bones of some old people's lives in whispers. Yet Poorhouse is less concerned with old age than with the clash between the bloodless ideal of social perfectibility and the pungent humanity of the old Adam. On this subject Author Updike's whispers are sibilant with meaning.

The trouble at New Jersey's Diamond County Home for the...

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