Magazine May 20, 2019, Issue

John Updike Saw the World as It Was

John Updike (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
John Updike: Novels 1959–1965, edited by Christopher Carduff (Library of America, 824 pp., $45)

Some artists just refuse to leave well enough alone when depicting the world. For example, Alfred Hitchcock brought to the screen a world more frightening and ominous than it actually was, while Norman Rockwell in his paintings summoned a world more beautiful and just than it ever could be.

In contrast to such alternately bleak and sunny visions was the commonsensical realism of John Updike, who, over the course of a career consisting of a huge output of novels, short stories, poems, and essays, could usually be counted on to take the measure of the world as it really was. “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me — to give the mundane its beautiful due,” Updike wrote in the 2003 foreword to a selection of his short fiction, The Early Stories: 19531975.  

Updike — a Pennsylvania native who was born in 1932 and died in 2009 — is the subject of a new volume from the Library of America. The fourth Updike volume to date from the nonprofit publisher, it presents his first four novels: The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963), and Of the Farm (1965).

Updike’s commitment to representing “things as they are” — to borrow the title of a section of his 1999 nonfiction collection More Matter: Essays and Criticism — incubated him from the political partisanship that marred the work of so many of his contemporaries. Norman Mailer wagged his finger at the ethos that supposedly led to the Vietnam War in Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), and Kurt Vonnegut inveighed against warfare in general in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), but Updike largely avoided rooting for one side or another. Instead, he seemed ready for whatever fate, or elections, might deliver.

In 1989, Updike published a remarkably brave and candid essay about his political ambivalence in Commentary, “On Not Being a Dove.” Although he thought of himself as a man of the Left, he recognized that he was conservative, even hawkish, in many of his attitudes. Furthermore, he displayed an almost childlike protectiveness in standing up for the nation’s leaders as they navigated, sometimes bumblingly, the nightmare of Vietnam. “I felt obliged to defend Johnson and Rusk and Rostow, and then Nixon and Kissinger, as they maneuvered, with many a solemn bluff and thunderous air raid, our quagmirish involvement and long extrication,” wrote Updike, who also bemoaned the lack of “intellectual interest” — that is, the dullness — of decrying Johnson and Nixon for being bad presidents. “Truth had to have more nooks and crannies, more ins and outs than that,” he wrote.

Later in the same essay, Updike made an intuitive leap from the political to the personal. In sometimes comical, often cringe-inducing detail, he delved into the dental woes that had begun in youth and pursued him into adulthood. Yet a strange sort of pride, not self-pity, emanated from his account of the succession of specialists — and plethora of procedures — marshaled to preserve the health of his mouth. Updike writes of having successfully endured “a long history of pain,” but he seems to be suggesting that he was the better for it — that it was a cross to bear and that some crosses are worth bearing. Near the end of the essay, the Lutheran-turned-Episcopalian writer casts his dental travails in religious terms, referring to “that fine firm line from the Book of Common Prayer”: “There is no health in us.” As Updike saw it, poor teeth and gums, like bad presidents, ought to be regarded as a fact of life — “things as they are,” as he might put it.

Just months before he died, in an interview with Charlie Rose to promote what was to be his final novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008), Updike was still advancing a kind of clear-eyed, no-nonsense moral code. Although their conversation took place in the thick of the mortgage crisis, Updike reminded Rose that homeowners bore responsibility for taking on too much debt, which, for the author, was the latest example of American society’s taste for indulgence and lassitude. “The fact that we’re fat or fighting being fat indicates that food is too easy to come by,” Updike said. “There’s no sense of austerity or doing without being any kind of a virtue. When I was a kid, there was all this talk about doing without: ‘It does you good to do without.’”

At their best, the novels gathered in this volume present the world with the same sort of level-headed precision. In Rabbit, Run — the dazzling opening book of what evolved into a much-honored tetralogy tracking a no-great-shakes Pennsylvanian named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom — Updike writes with the vision of an owl and the hearing (and sense of smell) of a canine. In the first scene, after Rabbit enthusiastically seeks out, and then dejectedly walks away from, a pick-up basketball game with area youngsters, he soaks in the atmosphere. “Ashcans, garage doors, fences of chicken-wire caging crisscrossing stalks of dead flowers,” Updike writes. “The month is March. Love makes the air light. Things start anew; Rabbit tastes through sour aftersmoke the fresh chance in the air.”

Rabbit, Run is studded with such verse-like bursts. Consider the passage in which Rabbit mulls over what he perceives to be the declining looks of his pregnant wife (and mother of his two-year-old son), Janice. “Just yesterday, it seems to him, she stopped being pretty,” Updike writes. “With the addition of two short wrinkles at the corners, her mouth has become greedy; and her hair has thinned, so he keeps thinking of her skull underneath it.” A hardware-store worker’s fingernails are said to resemble “those old shovels you see worn into weird shapes.” When, rebelling against domesticity, Rabbit makes a beeline out of town, a road at night is described as unspooling with “infuriating slowness, its black wall wearilessly rising in front of his headlights no matter how they twist.”

Note that these passages unfold in the present tense, a remnant of Updike’s initial plan to call the book Rabbit, Run: A Movie. “The cinematic art knows no tense but the present,” Updike wrote in a 1977 note that accompanied a Franklin Library edition of the novel, which editor Christopher Carduff includes here in a well-organized appendix. “I even had an introduction, discarded, leading the reader down the aisle to his seat.” For a writer so attuned to the tactile and tangible, the movie setup was needlessly gimmicky, but the use of the present tense remains effective.

Unfortunately, similar stunts mar more than one early Updike work. The Poorhouse Fair — a well-crafted novel that revolves around the denizens of a poorhouse — unaccountably takes place not in or around the year it was written but decades down the line. The ill-defined futuristic time frame calls to mind Updike’s late-career sci-fi exercise Toward the End of Time (1997); both books read like products of an unholy union of Henry James and Ray Bradbury. More unsatisfying still is The Centaur, which could be subtitled “Updike interruptus”: At its core, the novel tells the contemporary story of a father and son, but this is augmented by references to Greek mythology, notably the half-human, half-horse title creature, written in a windy, pretentious style: “Of all Chiron’s students, Achilles gave his teacher the most trouble yet seemed most needful of his approval and loved him least bashfully.” We miss the Keds shoes scraping the basketball court at the start of Rabbit, Run.

The Centaur netted its author a National Book Award — among the first of countless prizes Updike was to receive — but reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Orville Prescott had little patience for the intrusion of Greek mythology (including, God help us, an index of mythological figures that logged their appearances in the text) into an otherwise solid outing. “The laborious construction of mythological puzzles may impress the impressionable,” Prescott wrote. “But the cost is high. Energy and talent are wasted and novels are unintentionally sabotaged by pomposity and tedium.”

Happily, Of the Farm — the most satisfying offering included here — suffers from neither defect. This psychologically acute novel centers on New York businessman Joey, his wife No. 2, Peggy, and his preadolescent stepson, Richard. The characters bounce off one another like bumper cars after they make the trek to the farm of Joey’s widowed mother. Of the Farm may be Updike at his plainest and most direct, but the emotions he evokes are always multilayered. Consider the way Updike writes of Joey’s double impression of Peggy traipsing to greet his mother: “I seemed to see her with my mother’s eyes, as a tall and painted woman toppling toward me, and simultaneously with my own, from the rear, as a retreating white skirt whose glimmering breadth was the center, the seat of my life.” Or the piercing verdict Joey’s mother renders on Peggy: “I’m surprised at you. . . . That you would need a stupid woman to give you confidence.” Or Joey’s intemperate disgust at his mother and stepson for spending his money during a supermarket excursion — just a line, but one that expresses so much.

Of the Farm’s careful account of sights and sounds and smells is as pleasing as Rabbit, Run’s. At one point, Updike writes that “the rain breathed on the sides of the house.” Later, a breakfast of pancakes is said to have “hung in the air like an untaken gift.” Updike even writes of the quenching of thirst awakening the “deeper creature in us” — brilliant.

In the years to come, the Library of America plans to release the balance of Updike’s novels. The best of them are more akin to the earthbound Of the Farm than to The Poorhouse Fair or The Centaur, with their strained, fantastical conceits. Written after Updike settled on the idea to use the Rabbit books to document an evolving America, Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) are never less than brilliant; Too Far to Go (1979) may be an ersatz novel, consisting of individual stories about Mr. and Mrs. Maple as they embark on life together and eventually hurtle toward divorce, but it’s a very fine and well-calibrated one; and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) ambitiously takes stock of a century.

As this collection of his early novels emphatically establishes, Updike was that rare writer whose strength was not in allowing his imagination to wander hither and yon, but in keeping his eyes fixed on what was right in front of him.

This article appears as “Updike’s Steady Vision” in the May 20, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette's book Picturing Peter Bogdanovich will be published next summer by the University Press of Kentucky.

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