John Updike on the Naked Queen of Tilth


 I've been on a bit of an Updike kick since he died.  These are the writers I admire the most: the ones who leave behind an astonishing assortment of novels, essays, poetry collections, New Yorker articles, and the like.

So I picked up his 1997 novel Toward the End of Time at the library. It's not for everyone; it's the rambling thoughts of a dirty old man in the year 2020, after the United States has sunk into a decline brought about by war with China and a general collapse of the government and financial system.

I mean, how far-fetched is that?

But the great thing about this novel is that the protagonist's wife is a serious, hard-core gardener. While he shuffles around the house wondering whether a man his age would still have the sexual potency to make it with his daughter-in-law, she is outside vigorously going after the deer and moving forsythia bushes around the landscape.  Updike is all about the details, and he really nails this garden.

I submit the following for your consideration:

The peonies needed to be propped: even I could see that. Gloria had always done everything, and supervised what she could not do. She had ever been on the telephone to lawn services, tree services, sprinkler-system maintainers, greenhouses, nurseries, and spent muddy-kneed hours out in the garden beds, digging, planting, transplanting, mixing the manure and peat moss, mulch, and loam, wearing a big battered straw hat we had once bought in St. Croix on holiday. I had liked the dirty way she looked, with earth smeared on her cheek where she had rubbed a mosquito bite with a muddy glove, and the way she, dog-tired at dusk, would leave all her caked and sweaty clothes in the laundry room, including her underpants, and walk upstairs nude, past her staring ancestral antiques, to soak her aching body in the tub, leaving me to put a quiche or a defrozen meat loaf in the oven for dinner. Men like being useful. I had liked serving my naked queen of tilth.


  1. I mean, he already knows what it’s like to live with a woman who gets really dirty. I’m talking about the quiche and meatloaf preparing part.

  2. Good afternoon,
    Great quote! I had to look up the exact meaning of the word — tilth– noun.
    #1= cultivation of the soil
    #2= cultivated land
    #3= the state of being tilled
    The word comes from the French word -tillian — to till. I rent a garden plot 10feet by 35 feet from the Parks dept of my city. I am thrilled to have it!

  3. Wow, he just described me on a typical Saturday. Except my partner frequently comes out with iced coffee! I loved the rythym of quote as well. Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Michele – I may be reading it wrong but the implication is that someone other than he made the quiche and meatloaf. All he’s doing is warming them up after thawing. Its all good but you need to think to the next level… you know, having the bath ready for you, making dinner himself. I’m jez sayin

  5. this one’s going on my “need to read” list – thanks for the recommendation. You just described my perfect life (except there would be not defrosted items. Husband would have cooked those from scratch for us while I was out toiling)

  6. I don’t know too much about gardening (that’s why I’m here) nor do I know much John Updike, but I think you’ve convinced me to pick up a book or two of his. And my wife should read this. It would be nice if she went out into the garden and got a little “muddy”.

  7. Definite mixed feelings about Updike. The guy could write! But the writing is so littered with obsession and neurosis. He took a bad boy’s delight in dark corners and dirty laundry. I’d really rather be outdoors. Still, as in the quote above, he’s worth reading for the prose alone.

  8. I doubt my wife considered me the Prince of Tilth, but I have tromped in almost naked from the mud room to the house. That passage resonated clearly. Something happy about that.

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