My Updike kick started 30 years ago, with an old paperback, bought from a used bookseller, of Rabbit, Run (1960), his first novel about Harry Angstrom.
What hooked me was the third sentence. The hero, 26 years old, is coming home from his job demonstrating kitchen utensils in a department store, when he stops to watch some boys playing basketball. “The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.” Harry had been a star once: “In his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago.” He joins in the game, thrilled to feel the remnants of his old skill, then goes home to his drunken, pregnant wife, who seems less thrilling.
The next 20 pages keep up the momentum. Harry decides, as the title says, to run. If he leaves his hometown, a small Pennsylvania city in what was not yet called the Rust Belt, and drives south, maybe he will find something better; maybe running will be better. Updike and the car radio propel him on. “Melodies turn to ice as real night music takes over, pianos and vibes erecting clusters in the high brittle octaves and a clarinet wandering across like a crack on a pond.” His flight doesn’t work out; he gets turned around in the night, and dawn finds him back home, and in his life. The rest of the book sagged a bit, but this was a strong start, for Updike and for me.
It was easy to find his old books in paperback, new or used, and brand-new hardcovers kept coming out, one every year. Some were excellent. But after eight or ten years, I began to lose my way, like Harry himself. Updike’s productivity was wearying. His essays, mostly book reviews, were generous but bland; his poetry, which often appeared first in The New Yorker, was not good (he called one collection The Carpentered Hen: labored and lifeless — exactly). His interests – adultery, Christianity — became, in large doses, tics. He had no humor, I thought, and he couldn’t inhabit women. Neither of these judgments was entirely true, but both are true of much of his work. I still loved those sentences, but where were they going? So, at some point in the late Eighties I simply stopped — and missed a dozen books.
Now that he has died, I hunt through my shelves for the books that I have not given away, and look for what was there. Start with those sentences. It is possible to be a great writer who is also a bad writer: James Fenimore Cooper comes to mind. But it is so much easier to be great when you are also good. Writers and readers should respect the tools of the trade. It is better to be exact, not vague; sharp, not blunt; evocative, not earthbound; musical, not tone-deaf; smart, not stupid. Of those five good qualities, Saul Bellow was only smart; Philip Roth misses being evocative. Updike at his best drew straight after straight.
#page# “Novel” literally means new. A novel can be a superior Fodor’s. Updike’s favorite territory was mid-century America. He started with his home turf. “What sort of a town is Reading?” asked George Washington in 1793 when it looked like yellow fever might drive the federal government out of Philadelphia. Updike told us (he was born in nearby Shillington), then branched out to all of suburbia. America pops up even when he seems to be elsewhere. Hakim Félix Ellelloû, dictator of Kush, the made-up African country that is the setting of The Coup (1978), was an exchange student early in life, a kind of reverse Obama. As he is about to decapitate his predecessor, the victim’s bared neck makes him think of “a candy apple, such as one buys at county fairs in Wisconsin — its tough glaze, its slender wooden stick, its little cap of coconut. The first bite is most difficult.” Elsewhere the dictator calls America “that fountainhead of obscenity and glut” — but he can’t get it out of his mind.
Novels should introduce us to other people. Most of Updike’s successful characters were (one gathers) rather like himself: willful but uncertain white Protestant men. Such folk merit our attention, so long as they can compel it. But Updike could vary his dramatis personae. Unusual narrators gave certain of his books a built-in structural comedy. Ellelloû bounces between Africa and America, black and white (one of his wives is a white former classmate he keeps in a burqa), his glittering rhetoric (some of the best French ever written in English) and his misadventures. Roger Lambert, the divinity professor who narrates Roger’s Version (1986), is white and (sort of) Protestant, but he also appears to be Satan. He keeps fretting over a broken fingernail (his cloven hoof?). Everything he says about Christianity, and the affair between his wife and a Jesus-freak grad student that he colludes in, has to be taken with a pound of salt. The devil also appears in The Witches of Eastwick (1984), to seduce the witches of the title, divorcees who have set up a coven in a modern Rhode Island town. The narrator is an anonymous gossipy neighbor, but we spend most of our time in the witches’ points of view — a successful attempt to cross the gender divide, and try to look at life, loss, and men (most of them losers, the greatest being the devil himself) from the other side.
One of Updike’s best non-Updike characters is the Jewish novelist Henry Bech. Jews ruled American literature in the last half of the last century. Keith Mano wrote, in these pages, that in future times the gentiles of our day would be like the Hittites, background figures in Semitic chronicles. Using Bech, Updike decided to look at literary life from the kosher side: Youthful ambition, writer’s block, reviewers, editors, fans, they’re all hilariously there. The list of books and articles by and about Bech at the end of Bech: A Book (1970) is bibliography as stand-up. “Podhoretz, Norman, ‘Bech’s Noble Novel: ACase Study in the Pathology of Criticism,’ Commentary, XXXIV (October, 1963).”
We also expect novels to give us a situation, the writer’s take on the world we call real. If the writer does not share himself, his stories will fall willy-nilly into stale genres, like some mixture of journalism and television. What Updike shared with us was a belief that the world was lovable, combined with a doubt, against which he strove, that it might be a screen for nothing at all. “All year, without knowing it,” a dying woman in Witches of Eastwick “had been saying good-bye to each season . . . [to] that vernal moment when the snowdrops and croci are warmed into bloom out of matted brown grass in that intimate area on the sunward side of stone walls, as when lovers cup their breath against the beloved’s neck; she had been saying goodbye, for the seasons would not wheel around again for her.”
It’s hard to say what his Christianity consisted of; its only sacrament seemed to be adultery. But we don’t go to novelists for theology. In the lasting ones we find thoughts we may already have had, which strike us with redoubled force in new guises.
Now that John Updike has died, and the stream of new books has stopped, it will be time to go back, at leisure and selectively, to the ones I liked and the ones that got away.