Friday, January 30, 2009


A few friends have emailed or commented or asked about my take on the late John Updike.

Well, first of all, he was a literary phenomenon. When RABBIT RUN came out in 1961 and put him on the literary map, no one who loved books and was alive at the time could avoid it. It had to be read. At least that’s the way I and anyone I knew who loved books reacted.

Kerouac and Mailer were getting attention not just for their writing but for the extra-literary aspects of their personas and lives, and for the movements they seemed to be a part of or were categorized with.

Others, like Vonnegut, were paperback stars, gaining a wide audience but yet to be taken as seriously as their hardcover contemporaries.

But Updike conquered all elements of the literary scene as the lone gunslinger of Eastern Pennsylvania rural and small town lore.

RABBIT RUN was too depressing and, in a way I only see now—slight, in terms of actual context and the times—to be a book I’d want to go back to again (Updike did that himself in the later sequels, which were even more depressing).

But no one could deny, at least in his early books, as well as a lot of his later writing, the sheer beauty of his skill in working with words.

He was kind of like the Glenn Gould of fiction writers. Best working alone in an isolated studio somewhere (I’m talking image not necessarily reality in Updike’s early years when he worked for THE NEW YORKER), and had he died young, I’m sure Updike’s reputation would be as glowingly cult inspiring as Gould’s has been among classical piano fans.

But when I listen to Gould’s versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I’m impressed, but frankly, I usually don’t make it all the way through before I realize I’m ultimately not moved in any passionate way by it.

Living long, or at least longer than you and your contemporaries expected you to (I’m talking about me here) has its advantages, one of which is getting to test your younger taste.

I still love many of the authors and poets and music creators and movies etc. I dug when I was in my late teens and early twenties (which sociologists say is when most of us form our taste and end up sticking to that for the rest of our lives) but I also have picked up other favorites later in life and discarded some of the earlier ones.

Updike is one of the latter. And even in the beginning I dug him as a writer but had no passion for what he was writing about or the voice of the author coming through the work (as I did say with Kerouac, who I identified completely with in his ethnic-American mystical Catholicism, fish-out-of-water diamond-in-the-rough mostly autodidact intellect perspective, and passionately deplored Mailer’s phony macho fundamentally dishonest persona that came across as dilettante-ish to me even if expertly self-promoting).

But my first wife, Lee, God rest her soul, who I met only briefly and then corresponded with for years before marrying basically sight unseen (I had no memory of what she looked like when we first met) loved Updike’s work back then with a passion.

The impulsiveness of that marriage was based almost entirely on our taste in literature shared in our many letters of the few years we wrote to each other before marrying so spontaneously. The books we shared a love for included Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN as well as more contemporary work like William Goldman’s first two novels—THE TEMPLE OF GOLD and YOUR TURN TO CURTSY, MY TURN TO BOW.

But Lee was better educated than me (she was at the University of Buffalo which she dropped out of to marry me, while I had briefly been at St. Bonaventure’s (still a college then) before being kicked out) and hipper to the avant-garde perspective of the time (she introduced me to books by Rimbaud, Lawrence Durrell, Max Frisch, etc.).

She wasn’t as into other personal favorites of mine—like Kerouac or William Saroyan, which I thought I could get her to dig, and she did eventually get into Saroyan—and unlike me, she adored Updike. Her mother had grown up on a farm in upstate New York, in an area very much like the kinds Updike wrote about and where Lee spent her summers. And Lee’s sensibility was closer to Updike’s as it came across on the page—concerned and engaged in philosophical aspects of contemporary life, but at the same time a little distant and observant as opposed to my jump-in-and-see-if-the-water’s-safe-later approach to everything life has to offer.

Lee got me to read Updike’s first novel, which was her favorite, THE POORHOUSE FAIR, I think it was, set in an old peoples’ home. Lee had volunteered for hospital work where she spent a lot of time with older dying patients and had many stories about them, so I think was impressed with how well Updike captured that milieu.

But she was very smart (a Merit scholar among other things) and knew how to get me to dig something (like turning me onto a classical composer by playing me their piano music, since that was what I played at the time, piano, only jazz) so she turned me on to Updike’s short stories, which was better suited to his gifts for my taste.

Updike’s short stories is where I found a connection that not only kept me interested but allowed me to fall for Updike’s voice and subject matter. I think that first story collection of his she got me to read was called PIGEON FEATHERS. It stayed with Lee when we separated and I never replaced it so I can’t be positive, but I can positively say that even thinking about it today—the story of the grocery store bag boy, the one about the pigeon feathers in the barn, etc.—it still resonates almost half a century later. That’s some literary power.

My ultimate take on Updike as a writer is, RABBOT RUN is a phenomenon that should be read (as well as POORHOUSE FAIR) for the excellence with which it was crafted. But in the end, Updike’s poetry falls short as anything unique or indelible, and the rest of his novels, for the most part, are more well-written sociology than great literature (though those who compare him to Trollope might be right and his work may come back strong for future generations interested in the workings of the mostly WASP suburban entrails of American life in the mid and late 20th century).

So in my pantheon, Updike’s novels don’t really find a place except for their obvious impact on the reading audience and the literary world. But not in my heart, which is all that matters to me now. Though his short stories still do. Hmmm I feel a list coming on.


JIm said...

You have a real talent for reviews. I never read him, probably because I do not like depressing stories, however, maybe I will skim a little to see if I can appreciate his style.

AlamedaTom said...

Updike was also a fine critic (fine art and literature) as well as a thoughtful editor. I have his collection of the Best Short Stories of the Century up at my place at Tahoe, which I and others enjoy dipping into when the snow is falling. Here is a link to the book:

~ Willy

Toby Thompson said...


I'm surprised you didn't mention his brave and pioneering use of sexuality.

Mailer wrote in his novel, "Tough Guys Don't Dance":

"The best description of a pussy I ever came across was in a short piece by John Updike called 'One Neighbor's Wife':

Each hair is precious and individual, serving a distinct role in the array: blonde to invisibility where the thigh and abdomen join, dark to opacity where the tender labia ask protection, hearty and ruddy as a forester's beard beneath the swell of belly, dark and sparse as the whiskers of a Machiavel where the perineum sneaks backward to the anus. My pussy alters by the time of day and according to the mesh of underpants. It has its satellites: the whimsical line of hairs that ascend to my navel and into my tan, the kisses of fur on the inside of my thighs, the lambent fuzz that ornaments the cleavage of my fundament. Amber, ebony, auburn, bay, chestnut, cinnamon, hazel, fawn, snuff, henna, bronze, platinum, peach, ash, flame, and field mouse: these are but a few of the colors my pussy is.

Mailer went on to comment, "It is a beautiful description of a forest, and makes you ponder the mysteries of scale.... I realized I had never looked at a pussy properly until I read Updike. For that alone, John would be one of my favorite writers."

Adios, Norman, John.

RJ Eskow said...

Michael, I love the Glenn Gould comparison. As with Gould, I would have saluted Updike for his gift. And, as with Gould, I never wanted to spend too much time in his head - or in his company.

God rest his soul ...