As in his previous books, the tension here is in the style and words as well as in the narrative, and the worlds of George Caldwell and his 15 year old son Peter are heightened and illumined by them. This threads the legend of Chiron, the "noblest of all the Centaurs" who begged for death as an atonement for Prometheus' theft of fire, through the cumulative frustrations of the school teacher who knows the fury of living as well as the fury of failure; it reflects the effects on Peter as his orbit, physical and spiritual, closes in and stretches away from his father whom he senses needs a defender and an avenger; it encompasses a few days in which recall of the past and a look into the future inform the present. Wounded by an arrow- as was Chiron, George is further wounded by his principal's apparent humiliations; certain that he is harboring a fatal disease, he is not comforted when X-rays prove him wrong; increasingly ridden by guilt when he and Peter are caught in a near-blizzard, he returns home to the certain freedom of death. Peter's psoriasis, his love for Penny, his alerted sentience to his father's mounting despair are in counterpoint to his father's intense response to reality and equally strong sense of fantasy in which he is the Centaur....Poorhouse and Rabbit have won Updike critical acceptance and designation as the most conspicuously talented younger writer of the decade and there is a warmth here which may well admit and attract a wider audience. The transition of the relationship between father, no longer demigod, and son, comes through with a signal tenderness and implements Updike's established virtues, the glittering and polished prose and the mature alliance of form, function and symbol.
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Having been injured by an arrow during a lesson, a teacher, George Caldwell, has to interrupt the teaching process to deal with sharp pain. The depressive centaur is driven to an edge by his work, humiliation, teasing and lack of money. According to him, the best things in his life have already passed. His glory as a promising football player and a hero of the World War I has been forgotten long ago.
This way of thinking saddens his son. Although Peter has a girlfriend, he can’t stop worrying about his father. The more George talks about death, the more worried he becomes. The family lives outside the city, so the father and the son have to drive to the school every day. Instead of long heart-to-hearts, they have either arguments or useless small talks. Trying to protect his father, Peter often comes to his class during the breaks. The boy’s case of psoriasis becomes even worse under these circumstances.
Meanwhile, George starts suspecting that the headmaster, Zimmerman (Zeus), is going to dismiss him and looks for a reason. He complains about feeling ill to his wife. He does it a lot, though this time is different. George goes to a doctor. When the examination is finished, the pair goes outside, the father decides to go to Alton to make his x-ray done and then go to a sport club to support his team.
The boy tries to support his father but it proves to be impossible. He goes to a movie, while his father is busy supporting the school’s swim team he coaches. Later on, Peter finds out that the team loses. They have to get back home but the car doesn’t start. They look for help but find only a drunken man who begs for money. He thinks that George wants to rape the boy. This episode sobers George, since he understands that death was close.
After the night in a hotel, they come back home. Unfortunately for George, his problems don’t cease. He claims that he is a commie and an atheist. He notices how the headmaster’s mistress leaves his office and is consequently afraid of revenge. When he comes to watch a baseball game, there is no ticket for him. The car doesn’t start again and no one stops to help them. The results of his examination don’t show any trace of a serious illness. In spite of this fact he can't carry on, and he accepts death.
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