Licks of Love, by John Updike

Whenever one thinks of John Updike's work, one thinks instinctively of its obsession with sex. His new collection of short stories, which includes a novella titled "Rabbit Remembered," confirms this re­sponse. The stories express Updike's conviction--first stated in Couples, his notorious 1968 novel--that, in the absence of God, we have "nothing but sex and stoicism and the stars to steer by." In that novel he depicts five marital partners swinging and swapping in nearly every heterosexual permutation possible. In his even better-known Harry ("Rabbit") Angstrom tetralogy, Updike traces the career of an ordinary Pennsylvanian through four decades, commenting along the way about the changing social and political character of America during the second half of the 20th century. Yet Updike's primary subject is Rabbit's "inner urgent whispers," his all-consuming sexual desires that, when acted out, bring both glory and ruin.

Readers and critics have often wondered how Updike could consider his erotomanic fiction a faithful chronicle of middle-class American life. Even in a sex-sodden culture like ours, is Updike right in portraying nearly everyone as caring about little else than sex? The answer lies, I believe, in an interior confession made in "Rabbit Remembered" by Janice Harrison, Angstrom's now remarried widow. First marriages are likely to fail, Janice reflects, because they are your first real attempt to try on "life and sex and making babies and finding out who you are. Second marriages [are] lighter. You just expect a little companionship, a little fun that harms no one else."

One could not ask for a more succinct expression of the American sexual ethos embodied by Updike's protagonists. Marriage is akin to an extended date, affording a harmless bit of companionate fun as long as it lasts. Whether conjugal or not, sex is mandatory. It proves our personal worth and provides our distinctive identity, according to Updike. The hunger for happiness it represents must be indulged despite the social and communal constraints that would starve it.