To Carter Billings, the hero of John Updike's title story, all of England has the glow of an afterlife: "A miraculous lacquer lay upon everything, beading each roadside twig, each reed of thatch in the cottage roofs, each tiny daisy trembling in the grass." All twenty-two of the stories in this collection - John Updike's eleventh, and his first in seven years - in various ways partake of this glow, as life beyond middle age is explored and found to have its own particular wonders, from omniscient golf caddies to prescient sexual rumors, from the deaths of mothers and brothers-in-law to the births of grandchildren. As death approaches, life takes on, for some of these aging heroes, a translucence, a magical fragility; vivid memory and casual misperception lend the mundane an antic texture, and the backward view, lengthening, acquires a certain grandeur. Travel, whether to England or Ireland, Italy or the isles of Greece, heightens perceptions and tensions. As is usual in Mr. Updike's fiction, spouses quarrel, lovers part, children are brave, and houses with their decor have the presence of personalities. His is a world where innocence stubbornly persists, and fresh beginnings almost outnumber losses.
As Updike himself edges into his 60s, so do the narrators and protagonists of most of these 22 beautifully crafted stories, all of them meticulously honest and gracefully ironic. ``In the winter of their lives,'' most of these aging men have been married more than once-adultery is endemic in their social sphere (sophisticated communities up and down the Eastern seaboard). They have not achieved the happiness they expected, however, and they have reason to think back wistfully to the women they first married, when life seemed full of promise-especially since their second and third wives carry a ``weight of anger'' and resentment, augmented by feminism. These men are chillingly aware that even intimate connections prove superficial; the protagonist of ``Grandparenting'' perceives that ``nobody belongs to us, except in memory.'' Sometimes insight is healing: in two stories concerning George, a beset older man married to Vivian, a contentious woman 20 years his junior, George achieves the serenity of acceptance: ``his used old heart cracked open and peace entered.'' And in two of the most powerful tales, the title story and ``Baby's First Steps,'' a minor accident gives a man a glimpse of his mortality, yet existence is henceforth tinged with sudden magic. The relationships between sons and mothers-elderly, dying, dead-fuel many of these tales, which are rendered with a brave candor. Inspired whimsy and a touch of the supernatural invest a standout story, ``Farrell's Caddie,'' and ``Cruise'' is a modern-day Greek myth cloaked with wit. This volume marks the 42nd of Updike's books to be published by Knopf; one looks forward to the changing perspective (though not changing themes) that each decade brings to this masterful writer's work. BOMC and QPB club alternates. (Nov.)