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.
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.
Updike is at his best, as far as I can tell, in short story form. That being said, this novel from the early '60s still impresses, and will, I suspect, continue to impress long after his dozens of later, more popular fictions, fade from memory.
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.
This is a book I may appreciate more in the recollection. While reading it, I was distracted by the allegory. Sometimes, the mythical references were too vague or convoluted to catch and I had to refer to the index at the back to make sure I wasn't missing something important. But at times, the myth is more than allegory -- Updike sometimes refers to the hero as Chiron and describes his hooves clacking on the school stairs, for instance -- which I found jarring. Also, the hero was annoying, not just to me as a reader, but to his son, wife, and co-workers in the story. I can't figure out how this ties in with the myth of Chiron.
into what would otherwise be a poignant and well written character study, Updike has entwined strange tendrils of Greek mythology.
the opening scene is exemplary of this trend; we have our main character, a high school teacher, shot with an arrow by one of his students through the leg and trailing a bloody hoof.see, he's a centaur, apparently. once he reaches aid in the form of a mechanic able to cut the arrow, he goes back to class and struggles to complete his lecture under the jaundiced eye of his in-school nemesis, the vice principal.
the point of making any of these characters mythical creatures is completely lost on me and the execution seemed inconsistent from both a psychological and practical sense. a centaur that drives? how many legs do they have again?
to my mind this choice distracted from what would have otherwise been a solid, if somewhat gray, snapshot of a father-son relationship captured over the course of a handful of wintry days.
not bad per se, a little bizarre. perhaps just not to my taste.
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.