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The Poorhouse Fair

3.32 of 5 stars 3.32  ·  rating details  ·  461 ratings  ·  34 reviews
The hero of John Updike’s first novel, published when the author was twenty-six, is ninety-four-year-old John Hook, a dying man who yet refuses to be dominated. His world is a poorhouse—a county home for the aged and infirm—overseen by Stephen Conner, a righteous young man who considers it his duty to know what is best for others. The action of the novel unfolds over a sin ...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published March 13th 2012 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published January 1st 1958)
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I keep persisting with Updike; it’s the triumph of hope over experience I suppose. This is his first novel, written in 1957 and set in 1977. Thankfully it was better than the last one I read; Memories of the Ford Administration.
I am reminded of a quote from Harold Brodkey’s autobiographical work about his death from AIDS; “Living with AIDS is like being a character stuck in a bad John Updike novel”.
This is a rather brief novel set in an almshouse and it takes place in one day; the day of the a
Apr 26, 2009 Joanne added it
This is the first John Updike book that I have read. It's a story that describes a single day at an old folks home that is having it's annual fund-raising fair. It's really a comedy of errors in a touching way, showing how people have trouble communicating and are suspicious of people's intentions. Updike also addresses the changes in society perceived by the elderly. Written in 1958, the novel is apparently set in the future (probably around late 1970s) and forecasts some of the changes in mora ...more
Michael Meeuwis
Here's something I didn't know: John Updike's first novel is set in an institution for the elderly in a sort of mild, gently dystopian future. Some interesting nods to the future, prescient and less-prescient: multicultural and multiracial pop stars, but also economic central planning. Some passages of being in nature, early in the novel, are absolutely lovely; the book as a whole sort of drags in the middle and late passages. Sumptuous diction through. Not at all what I expected of Updike--no p ...more
I have always confused John Updike and Philip Roth. I don't think they are all that similar, though I can't be sure because I have never read either of them except for this first novel by Updike, read by me in 2002 for I don't know what reason. The confusion must stem from the fact that both writers began publishing in 1959, both were considered egregiously sex obsessed in their material, and both were the hottest male fiction writers of the day. Anyway, as I wrap up my reading list for 1959 I w ...more
Jan 30, 2009 lynnvariety rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to lynnvariety by: Annie

This was my first Updike novel, and I enjoyed the poetic minutiae from the very first sentence (as soon as I figured out what an osier was). Humorous and sad misunderstandings pepper this story, which arcs through a single day in a home for the elderly. That this home and its inhabitants are imagined by the author twenty years from the novel's writing adds an interesting twist; the device enhances Updike's contemplation of where American society was heading in the 1950s. If you didn't know the n

Offering an alternate dystopian hypothesis from Orwell's 84, Updike's '59 prediction book presents readers with a future in which "There's no call for marching bands any more. The parades they have now are all floats with whores on 'em advertising soap" (121). BLEAK STUFF.
"The Poorhouse Fair" is a unique experience in that it requires readers to understand characters who are distant and unwelcoming; they don't come right up to you and tell their stories, but rather expect you to make the effor
James F
The first book I've read by Updike, and I was pleasantly surprised; I didn't really expect I would like him. Probably I was mislead by the fact that he was a bestselling author into expecting something less serious.

This is, I think, his first novel. I was written in 1959, and apparently set about a decade later, but this is hard to notice; it is as if the Eisenhower administration were extended another ten years, the feel is totally 1959 and I just read it as if it were set then, which it really
--written as a deliberate anti-Nineteen Eighty-four
--foresaw widespread voyeurism, and a nation of pleasure seekers
--strange absence, television
--philosophical ambition: an attempt to present the meaning of being alive, as conveyed by its sensations
--the banal American chatter that dissolves the novel at the end manifests a positive, even cheering anima
--U pleased with his solution, for those days, to the problem of printed obscenities; better my abbreviations (a.hole) than non-words
Novel takes place during the course of one day in the life of the old people and their caretakers at the "poorhouse". Set in the un-specified future where the government has assumed responsibility for the poor and elderly. It resembles a nursing home and delves into the mindset of the individual residents. Many resent their loss of independence and do not want charity - but have no other choice. The fair is the one day of the year that they still have some control.
The Poorhouse Fair describes the events over the course of one day, a special day at the poorhouse, the day of their annual fair. And what is a poorhouse? Rather than what its name implies, the poorhouse is a retirement home for the aged. I suppose that the inhabitants are also poor, but it’s their old age, not their poverty, that defines them.

Some of the writing is brilliant, beautiful, and evocative. Descriptions that in and of themselves take you on a journey. Take one of the opening lines: “
Poorhouse Fair is like a slight, cantankerous One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with inmates at an old folks home in the sixties carrying on their own personal dramas while trying to set up a fair for the townsfolk. Watched over by a Utopian, ineffectual young bureaucrat and his bumbling lackey, the novel unspools over one day and night as the perspective lights about like a bird on a summer day.

A delight to read throughout thanks to Updike's invigorating prose, the book's crowning achievement c
Dec 06, 2011 Tammy marked it as to-read
Recommended in the book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.
Another book I probably wouldn't have finished if I wasn't reading it for book club. This book just didn't really incite any reaction in me whatsoever. The characters were neither compelling nor irritating. The plot was neither engaging nor especially boring (well the book was really short and pretty easy to get through either way). The writing is straightforward if somewhat dry, although I wasn't a fan of Updike's frequent lengthy visual descriptions. They seemed irrelevant & not very artis ...more
Updike's first book of poetry did not feel like a first book. His first book of short stories did not feel like a first book. But Poorhouse Fair very much felt like a first novel. The writing has a light touch, but there really isn't a main character or a plot. I've read books that managed nicely without them, but this just felt like ten different ideas strung together with ten different characters. There was no hook, no reason to turn the page, and nothing to identify with.

When I heard that th
May 13, 2012 Liam rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: See review
Strange, slim debut novel from Updike. Pretty difficult to follow at times, and in sections where it basically is a transcription of three overlapping conversations, I skipped most of the dialogue. I hate to say that, but this was not an easy book to want to finish. Glowing, supernaturally good descriptive prose (natch) and some fantastic little riffs. Here's a good one:

""Lucas worried off the cap, held in place by a newfangled set of wires, and, keeping the bottle dressed in the paper bag, pour
Updike's first novel is the strangest and most modern of his books I've read, both in its structure and style and the soft science fiction setting he uses. While most of his points about society are spewed in a heavy-handed manner from his characters, the ridiculousness, but believability of his poorhouse residents makes this quite a comic novel.


More of a modernist novel than Updike's other works, this strikes me, at first, as an almost cold work, like Beckett's fiction. When we start to g
Todd Thompson
Hmmm.... I have read several of Updike's later works, and this one does not rank with them. I was impressed, however, with his unique ability to capture moments in time, and in personalities, to present the reader with warm, emotional depth in everyday life. This is a gift he exhibited in all the books I've read of his, but this one lacked momentum, a crescendo. Still a 4-star, because of his extraordinary gift of language and description.
Outstanding, shimmering prose. Just beautifully written and with an attention to detail I've rarely seen. Broaches upon numerous subjects and provides great insight into the nature of morality and human relations, particularly the relationship between the old and young, the past and future, tradition and progressivism. Wouldn't recommend if you're not a literary person. The book's charm lies in its subtlety.
I read the first edition of this novel. I had no idea that it was set in Updike's version of the future as a response to 1984, because the introduction was not included in my edition. In general, I find Updike's writing to be descriptive to a fault and self-gratifying to the point of revulsion. His characters did not make me want to continue reading. I did not care about them or their fates.

After all of my dislike, I can see my Junior year AP English Language teacher getting a real kick out of
Absolutely awful. And depressing. There is one lovely scene between a husband, his wife, and a pet bird, but otherwise... Updike definitely could only go uphill from here.

Revised: It wasn't the worst thing I've ever read... it was just fairly dismal and not for me. The writing was pretty good- except the dialogue scene in the end where he seemed to be saying 'hey, look, I took a creative writing course once!' There are alot of powerful themes and symbols throughout the book that would make for
Walt Carlson
A good first novel, and full of the themes Updike will later develop. It feels much more like a long short story, however, and is not as complete as his other short novels.
This is definitely a five-star book. The setting is a little old-fashioned, but the theme of the culture clash and/or greeting across generations is universal. The characterizations are superb: Each person and his thoughts or fate hold interest.

Two particularly interesting accomplishments or traits of the book. First, there is suspense, anxiety, and tension regarding the outcome in general and the lives of the characters individually. Second, the writing is a real treat. The wonderful physicalit
The strength here is the descriptive passages. He doesn't seem to understand old people very well which makes sense as he wrote it young. My favorite scene was a brief alternate perspective on an event from the vantage of a dying, sedated man that will stick with me, though I'm not sure why.
Rick Seery
Updike's first novel is quite a slight narrative that never really takes off. There are numerous delectable hints of Updike's dense, knotty phenomenological prose that occasionally punch out the sensual gaps of the tepid action. Allegedly a science fiction novel, and if so, it is one that is dimly so. The short scope of the novella doesn't service the sometimes cliched principal characters well either. The novella's only recommendation is as an early sample of Updike's rich, poetic descriptive p ...more
This book takes place throughout the course of one day at a poorhouse, which is basically like a nursing home/assisted living facility. The reader is introduced to many characters, some of whom only pop into the story momentarily. There isn't much of a plot, it is centered more around the characters interactions, dialogue and inner thoughts. It's a quiet story, but still somehow captivating. I found myself wondering about the characters' past and present situations, as there is much left unsaid ...more
this is my first updike's novel, and to be honest i just didn't feel any excitement at all reading this book. The characters were just boring and the overall plot of the story was just not the kind that would draw me in or makes me wanna know what would happen in the end.
but even so, i noticed how poetic the way he composed every sentences and i loved that.
Sharon D
A narrative of old characters and young but they never fully develop and the relations between them are lacking. I love Updike's short stories but this was a little disappointing.
Peter Holst
Not bad for a first story but he would go on to do better. Interesting characters being that they are in a retirement community.
The writing is lovely but there's not much of a story. Just not my cup of tea.
It was not easy to follow and pretty boring in general.
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John Hoyer Updike (born March 18, 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania) was an American writer. Updike's most famous work is his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and Rabbit Remembered). Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won Pulitzer Prizes for Updike. Describing his subject as "the American small town, Protestant middle class," Updike is well known for hi ...more
More about John Updike...
Rabbit, Run (Rabbit Angstrom, #1) Rabbit at Rest (Rabbit Angstrom, #4) Rabbit Is Rich (Rabbit Angstrom, #3) Rabbit Redux (Rabbit Angstrom, #2) The Witches of Eastwick (Eastwick, #1)

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