Post Road Magazine #27

The Centaur by John Updike

Adam Sexton

1. What was I thinking? What was I thinking when I assigned John Updike's The Centaur to my Lit. and Comp. I class at Parsons School of Design? Published in 1963, the novel takes place over three days in a small Pennsylvania town, the apparently unremarkable inhabitants of which soon emerge as avatars of Greek and Roman gods and demigods. Thus high school science teacher George Caldwell incarnates the wise centaur Chiron, while principal Louis Zimmerman personifies Zeus. Vera Hummel, the girls' gym teacher, is Venus. Etc.

Much of The Centaur inhabits a thoroughly realistic mode, alluding to classical mythology without making the connection explicit. One chapter is exclusively mythological, not so much written as incanted and lacking any reference whatsoever to 20th century America.

The novel's opening pages combine the quotidian and the mythic in ever-shifting proportions. While teaching one morning, Caldwell is shot in the leg with an arrow (Is this some sort of…metaphor? one wonders, reading), so he clip-clops out of the high school to the auto-body shop next door, where crippled mechanic Al Hummel (Hephaestus, okay) extracts the shaft with the help of three cyclopes. During Caldwell's next class, Updike adds a third mode to his matrix: the surreal. A student opens a paper bag full of extinct trilobites, each of which wears a condom on its segmented body, and a girl turns into a parrot and eats one. In the back row of the classroom, Zimmerman molests Iris Osgood (Io—get it?).

My students were Painting and Fashion and Photography and Architecture majors required by Parsons to take the course. Many had come to New York from other countries, other cultures—non-"Western" cultures. What were they to make of all this? What was I thinking?

2. What I was thinking. My only instructions when hired to teach Lit. and Comp.: "Pick two book-length works of fiction. Use them to teach the students close reading and expository writing. Try to get them to fall in love with the books." The Centaur was the first book I thought of. Caldwell's son, Peter, narrates its realistic chapters in retrospect, from the p.o.v. of "an authentic second-rate abstract expressionist living in an East Twenty-third street loft." My students were Manhattan-dwelling artists-to-be. It seemed like a good fit.

Also, I didn't reread the novel before putting it on the syllabus.

3. What I was feeling. And why. Classical mythology was second nature to me. As an eight-year-old I had read a play called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old in a Gilbert and Sullivan anthology from my family's living-room bookcase. (Who reads Gilbert and Sullivan? It's like learning to swim by consulting a book. Which I also did.) The play's premise: feeling unappreciated as their Golden Age winds down, the disgruntled inhabitants of Olympus go on strike. Mikado-esque drollery ensues. More age-appropriate, and considerably less fusty, was D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, charmingly illustrated throughout in charcoal and pastels. When my ninth-grade English teacher assigned Edith Hamilton's Mythology, I didn't need to read it to ace Mr. Imray's pop quizzes.

—Lucky for me, since English honors classes had by then cured me of my reading compulsion. Silas Marner, Silas Lapham (one year, two Silases—what were the odds?), The Mayor of freaking Casterbridge…. I preferred playing drums in my bedroom, or watching SNL. Then a neighbor recommended The Centaur.

The novel depicted a world I not only recognized but dwelled within, the world of small-town public high school. I recognized painter-to-be Peter Caldwell, too, had lived his sensitivity and alienation. I'd had shingles in ninth grade. Peter suffers from psoriasis, which itches badly and eats at his self-esteem like…well, like an eagle gnawing on someone's liver. Peter is Prometheus.

With its one-to-one correspondences between characters and their classical-pantheon counterparts, The Centaur can read a bit like Joyce For Dummies. I was tickled by its parlor-game aspect, though, when I encountered the book in high school, and still am. Some of the parallels seem ham-handed, but others are subtle, obscure, or just plain clever. Apollo is G.P. "Doc Appleton." Athena's only appearance in the novel is as a neon sign advertising Owl brand pretzels.

Anyway, what's most special about The Centaur isn't its allusiveness or structure but the book's lyrical realism, the passages in which Updike fulfills his career ambition (and by the age of thirty-one) "to give the mundane its beautiful due." Here Peter awakes in his Aunt Vera's house on the morning after a blizzard:

The room was radiant. Beyond the white mullions and the curtains of dotted Swiss pinned back with metal flowers painted white, the sky was undiluted blue. I thought, This morning has never occurred before, and I jubilantly felt myself on the prow of a ship cleaving the skyey ocean of time… Next to the window, its chipping veneer somehow grimacing, was an old-fashioned bureau with fluted glass knobs, a wavy-faced top drawer, and ponderous scroll feet like the feet of a cartoon bear. The radiance beyond the house picked out the silver glints in the stems and leaves of the wallpaper. I closed my eyes to listen for voices, heard a vacuum cleaner humming at some distance, and must have slipped back into sleep.

Clearly narrator Peter Caldwell means to elevate his father (as Updike meant to elevate his father, also a schoolteacher) by means of The Centaur's mythological parallels. Ironically, though, what ennobles most herein is minutely observed, passionately depicted scenes like the one above. The novel is an act of love, with its most careful illustrations of the ordinary its most loving aspects. In reading them, I felt, and feel, loved. I wanted my students to feel loved too.

4. What happened next. Together my Parsons students and I moved slowly through the novel's protean first chapter and another psychotic-seeming one in which Peter, chained to a rock, is visited in turn by schoolmates as well as the spirit of the town in which they live. We skimmed the chapter that was undiluted mythology and focused on the rest. The students engaged in passionate debates regarding the identity of The Centaur's protagonist—was it George Caldwell or his son? And each of them made a presentation to the class. One girl showed scenes from Julie Taymor's Titus Andronicus and spoke about mixing ancient and contemporary, while a boy from France wore a fire-red shirt like Prometheus/Peter's while giving a talk on art in the book.

Late in the term I attended a reading by Updike, after which I met him for the first and last time at the head of the book-signing line. I told my Parsons students the following day. It was as if I had said I'd met Steve Jobs.

"Did you ask him?" one of the students asked breathlessly.

"Ask him what?"

"Who the protagonist is," shrilled others, more or less in unison. They had fallen in love with The Centaur.

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