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The Centaur Paperback – August 27, 1996

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Editorial Reviews


“A triumph of love and art.”—The Washington Post
“A brilliant achievement . . . No one should need to be told that Updike has a mastery of language matched in our time only by the finest poets.”—Saturday Review
“Unsurpassed . . . Natural, pertinent, fresh, subtle, and superbly written.”—Newsweek

From the Inside Flap

In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell yearns to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lost touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship to Prometheus, The Centaur one of John Updike's most brilliant and unusual novels.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reissue edition (August 27, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449912167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449912164
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #317,510 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 lived in Massachusetts. He was the father of four children and the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. A previous collection of essays, Hugging the Shore, received the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

Customer Reviews

The plot has very few `events.'
R. McOuat
The idea is brilliant, the writing beautiful, and Updike pulled it off with the skill of a master.
Nicholas Morrow
The most dominant of these themes is that of Greek mythology.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

61 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Michael Battaglia on October 2, 2000
Format: Paperback
Now, normally I read science fiction, it's the bread and butter that I grew up on and I still love reading old and new SF. But I like to challenge myself with what I consider "literature" to read those books that everyone considers classics and see what everyone is talking about. Most of them take lots of effort to get through, you have to concentrate intently on just about every page, pay close attention to plot and even in the end it might not all make sense. Sometimes these can be frustrating affairs and I wonder why I even bother and why I don't stick to the overall much easier to read SF genre.
Books like this remind me why I read literature. Simply put this has to be one of the most memorable books I've ever read. You don't so much read it as live it, immersing yourself in another time and place long gone. You can feel the icy sting of winter on your face, sense the tension of school both for teacher and student and hear the hopeful note in George Caldwell's voice even if he never seems to hear it. The book is simple enough, George Caldwell is a teacher who feels out of place in life, constantly putting himself down and sometimes not even sure why he carries on. He has a son and the relationship between father and son over a few days in a Pennslyvania 1940's winter is what makes up this novel and what makes this story work. Uplike seems to lovingly craft each scene with meticulous detail, not a word is out of place and he turns the most mundane aspects of life into something to be celebrated, chances are he'll make you look at routine things that you do around your life in a totally different manner. The father-son relationship is touching and refreshingly complex, there aren't any easy explanations, or answers.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By scott gates on April 8, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is perhaps my favorite Updike novel. The pathos and love of the relationship between Mr. Caldwell and his son Peter is the best writing of a father-son relationship i have ever read. Simply Mr. Caldwell is too good for this world and one of Updike's more likeable characters. His novels of the 50's and 60's seem to have more heart and vividness than some of his later work (particularly Roger's Version and S. - both of which i found lacking). But in the Centaur Updike makes a descriptive paradise out of the most mundane aspects of life: a broken down car, a high-school pep rally, morning coffee and much much more. Such things Updike turns into gold.
Truly most of the mythological stuff went over my head (my knowledge of ancient super-heros and comic books being mediocre at best), but i thought the interplay of the old fable and the story was handled well (Updike can handle anything well).
Besides having some of the most touching and memorable scenes I have read in a long time - (the images of this book have implanted themselves so firmly upon my mind that I feel i experienced the life of this novel rather than read it) - it also plays wonderfully with time - time running out, time misplaced, the span of three average days containing the musings and yearnings of a lifetime etc.
I really cannot think of one thing this book is missing: the writing, predictably, is amazing, the characterization is on the level of the Rabbit novels, and the originality of the format and the boldness of the narrative are dazzling. What more can I say?
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By David G. Phillips on December 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
The Greek mythology interspersed throughout this book is a small but seemingly important factor. The protagonist, Caldwell/Chiron is a teacher of high school students in 1940s East Coast. Caldwell is an obsequious and self-hating man that feels totally inadequate in life - however, he is a goodhearted man that means well. Caldwell, like the famous centaur, Chiron, is a noble teacher that lacks the command and respect that a good person deserves. The book starts with Caldwell being shot in the foot with an arrow that one of his students shot into his foot (the same way in which Chiron is killed in Greek mythology.) Caldwell and his son Peter/Prometheus are connected for a three-day period after car trouble and a blizzard. The book is mostly narrated from Peter's viewpoint, and you sense the boy/students frustration with his father/teacher and his lack of self-esteem.
Peter dotes over his father during this bonding period, as his father prepares for death and his lack of will to live. Symbolically I believe that the father figure is immortal in a son's eyes, and just as Chiron prepares for death as an immortal, the father figure must also prepare for a type of death when the son comes of age as a young adult. The story slowly evolves to being a modern day metaphor of the Chiron legend.
I wish I knew more about Greek mythology to truly appreciate this book. Even though my amateurish knowledge limited my understanding of the symbolism, I still truly enjoyed the book and Updike's incredible ability to write. I recommend the book and also recommend having a basic understanding of the Chiron legend to really appreciate the book.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By "rrr338" on January 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first read Updike's "Centaur" when I was not ready for it. Years later, and having become a father, I went back to it and was absolutely *floored* by the poignant honesty it so vividly conveys. This book is for anyone who knows the sorrow of wanting to feel closer to another, and yet having life's circumstances conspire against that goal. It is also for those who know that the great mystery in this life is that our ideals are out there, beckoning to us, even though we know we will never live up to them. There can be pain in that, and in this case, too much to bear. Updike is absolutely right: we are part mythical (our ideals) and part human (our flaws), and sometimes the tension in straddling the two worlds is just too great. Anyone who supposes to know anything about America's great literary tradition needs to have read "The Centaur."
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