A village is woven of secrets, of truths better left unstated, of houses with less window than opaque wall.
At the center of our lives is where we have lived and where we live – not the geographic place per se but the people who inhabit the villages, towns, and cities that influence us and become a part of our history. Villages is the story of Owen Mackenzie who has spent his whole life in three villages: Willow, Pennsylvania where he grew up, Middle Falls, Connecticut where he spent most of his adult years married to his first wife, Phyllis, raising a family and building a computer company with his partner, Ed Mervine, and Haskell’s Crossing, Massachusetts, a community where he lives in his later years with his second wife, Julia. Each of these places is defined by happiness and heartache, great joy and deception and ultimately in the realization of failure and death in old age.
Owen Mackenzie grew up as an only child in a home with both his parents and maternal grandparents in the small town of Willow, Pennsylvania. Heavily influenced by his mother and grandmother, Owen felt a deep comfort with women and especially strong women who would do things for him and take charge. He attended MIT where “for all his good grades and test scores, he had been so ignorant of basic processes that in his freshman year at MIT he went for weeks without changing the case on his pillow, stupidly wondering why it was turning grey.”
While at MIT, Owen meets Phyllis, one of the few women who attended MIT at the time. Smart, aloof, and stoic, Phyllis “looks at the world and groups people into one of three categories: birds, horses, or muffins.” In her eyes, Owen is “a big lazy bird that hovers all day in circles, hardly moving its wings, and then swoops to the kill.” She herself is a muffin: “accepting and non-disruptive.” But, “most people are horses…clumping along.” Together, Owen and Phyllis embark on a life together not knowing or even anticipating what awaits them in the years ahead.
Owen goes to work for IBM and eventually teams up with fellow IBM co-worker, Ed Mervine who operates under the mantra “who needs sex when you can have software?” which perplexes Owen, a man utterly fascinated with the women of Middletown, Connecticut. To Owen, “two kinds of women existed in the world… those with whom you have slept and those, a cruelly disproportionate but reducible number, with whom you haven’t.” Owen has no male friends nor does he see the need for male companionship. They bore him and only lead him to covet their wives.
In Owen’s later years when he is living with his second wife, Julia in Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts, Owen is a shadow of the man he was. Now 70 years old, Owen doesn’t have the same interest in the sex that defined his 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s and so he feels lost as sex was the barometer in which he measured his life. Whereas Middle Falls ” was mapped by the location of the homes of women in whom Owen was interested,” Haskell’s Crossing, despite 25 years as a resident felt “unmapped in his mind.” Owen finds himself spending his days thinking about death:
At three in the morning, our brains churn within the self, trying to get out of what we know to be a sinking ship. But, jumping out of the self is not a Western skill. The walls of the skull stay solid, sealing us in with our fears.
John Updike is a master at chronicling the ordinary lives of men. In his “Rabbit “series of books (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered) the story of Harry Angstrom (whose nickname is “Rabbit”) over a series of decades from young adulthood to his death unfolds. Two of the books (Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest) won the Pulitzer Prize. When I read those books years ago, I remember thinking that Updike was able to capture the mundane detail of the ordinary man who thinks no further than of his own pleasure, joy, and success. Updike does no less in his story of Owen Mackenzie in Villages.