Updike's new novel opens in 1910 with silent-screen actress Mary Pickford astride a horse, sweating under a heavily brocaded tunic. She is playing a medieval page in D.W. Griffith's The Call to Arms, but the shoot is interrupted when the actress faints. She is simply a 17-year-old girl suffering on a sweltering day in Paterson, N.J. In an unrelated episode across town, the Reverend Clarence Wilmot is suffering a crisis of the spirit. The Presbyterian minister realizes that he has lost his faith in God. The universe, he believes, is "as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle." Soon he will give up his ministry to hustle a living as an encyclopedia salesman.
Thus we meet the first of four generations in this ambitious chronicle of America's 20th century as told through the fortunes of the Wilmot family: the Reverend, his son Teddy, a timid postman; Teddy's fiercely ambitious daughter Essie, who becomes a 1950s movie star; and her son Clark, a Hollywood hanger-on who joins a Branch Davidian-like cult in the '80s.
Though it fills 491 pages, the novel feels skimpy. Important characters come and go without registering deeply, and the book's laundry-list approach to each era's current events and consumer goods has all the impact of a Post-it note. Updike's 17th novel is but a minor work in a major literary career. (Knopf, $25.95)