Can something be made of the fact that John Updike's most explicitly religious, even theological, novel, 1975's A Month of Sundays, is also his most experimental and--in tone, style and narrative form--his most Nabokovian? Largely ignored today, a joker in Johnny's deck, this may be Updike's freest and most exuberantly playful work of fiction. It's a bit long at just 271 pages and Updike pads it with golf and poker near the end, but the first half of this novel is typically dazzling and very funny.
The Centaur, published in 1963 and written at the end of the author's twenties, reads like an A-student's exercise in the rhetoric of High Modernism. Updike, perhaps 20th-century American literature's consummate professional, our buttoned-down, 9 to 5, civil engineer of fiction, here designs an interesting textual trolley that pauses at just about every stop on the Modernist line: ironic mythological parallels, surrealism, scatology, stream of consciousness, flashbacks, literary allusions, sexuality, etc. And Updike's masterfully competent deployment of other writers' innovations is, in its way, satisfying. And his natural lyricism, the beating heart of his talent (Who in his generation wrote better lyrical descriptions--of just about anything--than John Updike?), is impressive, as always... But in the end, for me, the mythological aspects, at their most explicit, disappointed by failing to satisfactorily mesh with the realistic narrative, the most lyrical parts of which are the novel's best moments. As in all of Updike's works, there are impressive scenes and sentences (as well as a few outdated passages apropos race and gender sure to send P.C. contemporary readers into fits of apoplectic rage), and the central character, based on the author's father, is an accomplished portrait in pathological self-deprecation (one gets the feeling that this guy has spent his whole life kicking his own ass), but the novel as a whole seems more a deliberate technical exercise than a necessary work of art. Young Johnny gets his gold star, but the novel is not top drawer.