Books: Narrowing Compass

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OF THE FARM by John Updike. 173 pages. Knopf. $3.95.

Joey Robinson, a spoiled poet who has become a high-level Manhattan publicist, returns to Pennsylvania for a weekend on his mother's farm. With him are his second wife Peggy and Richard, her 11-year-old son. While Joey mows the unkempt fields, the two women guardedly, and then unguardedly, spar over him, a prize that neither of them seems to want as much as they want simply to contest for its possession. The tug of war is academic anyway.

It is clear that Joey will never bestow himself on anyone.

That is about all John Updike has to say in his fourth novel, which will disappoint those admirers who have been waiting hopefully for a major talent to produce a major work. Instead of expanding, the Updike compass appears to be narrowing, as if its wielder were desirous of proving that he can, if need be, engrave his graceful arabesques on the head of a pin. Of the Farm barely qualifies as a novel; it is too brief, inactive and unambitious. But as a delicate cameo that freezes three people in postures that none of them finds comfortable, it is almost faultless. Its achievement is that with in credibly economical means, it suggests that each of these people will change, develop, shift in their relations to each other and makes the reader wonder what their future will be. Its failure is that Updike never explores that future.

As always, Updike's lean, acrobatic prose makes his performance look effortless: sunlight is "like raw ore still heaped on the upper half of the barn wall," birds on a wire "darkly punctuated an invisible sentence." One sweep of his pen can illuminate whole facets of life: after Joey's mother suffers a severe and terrifying attack of angina, 11-year-old Richard hurries to the homestead to see "a parade he was afraid of missing and afraid of catching."

There are flaws. Richard, for instance, is meant to be a bright and appealing 11-year-old boy, but he sometimes sounds like a greybeard. "That's an ancient philosophical problem," he says to Joey in response to the latter's observation that "the ideal and the real" are hard to reconcile. Joey's mother deserves a larger setting than the author has given her. She is a marvelous, angular, slightly awesome old woman who is held together by the negative and negating force of her character.

So far, Updike's performance has been mostly footwork displaying the virtuosity of a writer who can say very little extremely well. It may be that fancy footwork is all that Updike needs now to draw a crowd. But unless the performer tries for a little more, it may always be the same crowd.