A Month of Sundays, John Updike's Unreliable Gospel According to Thomas Marshfield
Meet Thomas Marshfield, a Christian Minister tending to a flock somewhere back East, above and beyond the pale of Ministry, especially where his female congregants are concerned. Here is a contemporary Doubting Thomas, on a Sabbatical of sorts. He is, short of being de-frocked, sent to a desolate motel, located in the desert, a program for ministers who have, shall we say problems regarding human frailty.
Thomas contemplates his indiscretions for a month of Sundays, along with his fellow inhabitants of a suitably Omegan shaped motel. Somewhat a Hotel California, it comes with a bar, a restaurant, golf and poker. But the literature available is of limited nature--the library is limited to harmless mysteries, English cozies, and the locked room puzzles of John Dickson Carr.
Ironically, the unnamed Administratrix is named, Ms. Prynne. Prynne? We don't know her first name, but in typical sly Updkie humor, one wonders if her first name is Hester.
Updike reveals Thomas' Alpha to Omega through a stream of journal entries, written to "the Reader." It is a mea culpa toting up his sins of commission and omission.
Thomas is the son of a minister. His father was a student of Tillichian theology. Thomas wishing to be more formidable in his religiosity opts for the less forgiving position of Karl Barth. The doctrine of Election wryly applies to Thomas in ways Karl Barth never intended. Thomas is not among the Elect in the sense of being among the saved. Thomas has selected to be among the damned.
Perhaps there is something of the Oedipal complex at play here. Thomas's quest takes on the search for his long dead mother. His aging father is lost in dementia, a resident of a nursing home. Although he most often doesn't recognize Thomas as his son, there are moments where he obviously does. The implication is that Thomas's mother was not the saint she believed he was. Neither was his father, who mistakes Thomas for his twin brother Erasmus or a former comrade in arms during WWI. Prior to entering the ministry, Daddy Marshfield recounts with ribald glee his escapades in France, waxing profane on his preference for a small woman with a small ass and breasts. Now that's the filly who provides the greatest joie de vivre! Right, Mooney? Raucous laughter of memories stored away long ago, echo through the nursing home.
The Alpha of Thomas is not extraordinary. He attends seminary. Marries a professor's daughter. In typical fashion, through the years, they have come to resemble one another physically. The bloom is off the rose. Thomas has two sons, Stephen and Martin, completely unalike. He cannot relate to him. The brothers, in Cain and Abel fashion, do not get along. Martin looks for the finer things in life, attending an exclusive private school that taxes the Marshfield coffers to the limit. Martin is studious, perhaps a bit of a dilettante, unmindful of the cost to his family. Stephen out of apparent love for the Father, or his father, elects to go to public school out of sacrifice to the family. He excels in sports, while Martin is the sensitive scholar of the two.
Back in the desert, it is journal writing between breakfast at noon. The journal is a self examination of the penitent's past and an acknowledgement of the indiscretions that brought each of them to their placement there. Along with Thomas there are fallen priests, ministers, preachers each with their own predilection leading to their cause of fall from grace, if grace exists at all. The Bible is not in existence at Thomas's Omega shaped retreat. Nor is it meant to be.
After journaling it's a daily round of Golf. The bar is always open. Poker at night. Although the penitents are not to discuss their peccadilloes that landed them in their spiritual wilderness, gradually they each learn of the others' most untheological downfalls. Unlike Christ's temptations avoided during his forty days in the wilderness, Thomas regales the reader with his most human and therefore faulty behavior, though he rationalizes the Dickens out of it.
It began with Alicia. One can almost hear Updike chuckling when he named Thomas's church organist. The very way in which Thomas describes her has the ring of Humbert Humbert's "Lo-Li-ta." Each time Thomas writes the name, it is with an air of "Ahhhh, A-liiic-i-aaaa!"
Alicia is a woman of many talents, adroitly handling two children as the divorced single mother. She fills the church with the soaring sounds of Bach to Buxtahude. The liturgy is shortened as Alicia turns Thomas' sermons into brief platitudes as she lengthen the muscial elements of worship bringing in brass instruments, percussionists, and, Good God, guitarists!
Worst of all, Alicia has determined that Thomas is her salvation from being single, adroitly persuading Thomas to leave Janet and his sons for a life with her. She has the sexual abilities of a lusty Lillith with a preference for the superior position, enthusiastically riding Thomas as easily as managing a stallion. And stallion, Thomas discovers, he is.
In a humorous series of episodes, Thomas attempts to foist his Assistant Pastor, Ned Bork on Janet, cajoling his wife, "Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to be with another man? He constantly invites Ned for dinner, finding some reason to leave to perform some ministerial duty in the hopes that Ned and Janet will find themselves in delightful in flagrante delicto, but neither party is buying it.
Alicia, a practical woman, turns her affections to Ned Bork, who readily accepts them, to the chagrin of Thomas who begins to see her car parked at Ned's garage apartment next to the parsonage. He is obsessed by the knowledge that his ultra-liberal Assistant is having his anatomical flute played by his former mistress.
Poor Thomas enters into a string of liaisons with his female congregants. The teenaged bride who married too quickly, too early, and realized she had made a life changing mistake. The emaciated divorcee, whose most prominent feature is an outstanding pudenda, always jutting out from her emaciated frame. Then, the fatal alliance with the head Deacon's sainted wife, Frankie Harlow. Ah, Harlow, ash blonde, gracefully aging, who detests the sight of her husband.
Harlow is Thomas's ideal of love. Faithful to the core. Image of Mother Mary. Perhaps, image of Thomas's own lost mother. Svelte, curved appropriately, with a luminescent body bathed in a lambent glow of chiaroscuro whatever the lighting. There's one problem. Thomas cannot service poor Frankie, no matter her skills with lips, tongue or hands. Damn.
Frankie is Thomas' Jocasta. And he is blinded by his inability to consummate his most desired seduction.
Urged on by Frankie that that woman who plays the organ has turned Sunday morning worship into a concert rather than devotion to the Word, Thomas decides to fire Alicia, no longer his, Ah, A-liii-c-i-a! Alicia, scorned as a lover, deprived of her job, tells all to the Deacons.
And thereupon hangs the tale of Thomas's Month of Sundays in the wilderness without any outlet for all the temptations of the memory of his many conquests, of all the congregants who have knelt in supplication to him, so to speak.
Here we have the Gospel of Doubting Thomas. This is Updike at his most outrageous. This is the dry, the wry, the sly John Updike, who as Robert Graves would have cried, warns Thomas "Down, Wanton!" And, Updike revels in the ribald, down and dirty life of Thomas Marshfield, allowing him to create his own Gospel according to Thomas. Did you know that adultery was actually a sacrament sanctioned by Jesus? Why, of course it was! Think! Jesus saved the adulteress from stoning. Think! Ah, Mary Magdalene!
Oh, Domine, Oh Devil, what have you done to my rod and staff? They no longer comfort me. You laugh at me, I'll laugh at you. Repent? Repent, Hell.A Month of Sundays
(1975)is the first novel in what John Updike
called his Scarlet Letter trilogy. The concluding volumes are Roger's Version
(1986), and S.
If you read Updike, sex with a capital S is everywhere, and absolutely abundant. After all, wasn't Man told to go forth, be fruitful and multiply? So, Doubting Thomas would preach the Word. In Times Magazine review of Couples
, appearing in the issue April 26, 1968, A View From the Catacombs,
, the author wrote:
His contemporaries invade the ground with wild Dionysian yelps, mocking both the taboos that would make it forbidden and the lust that drives men to it. Updike can be honest about it, and his descriptions of the sight, taste and texture of women's bodies can be perfect little madrigals.
With A Month of Sundays
, Updike offers up a raucous rondeau of sex and religion that rocks the rafters of any sanctuary or temple. With the exception of the fallen, the angels are blushing, but feverishly flipping the pages to find the good parts.