A Little on John Updike

Yesterday we starting a new novel: John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. If you want to know a little about it, check out this previous post.

I first heard about John Updike from a guy in college who had become a night watchman at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum because he thought it would deliver up some good material for a novel. When I asked if it did, he shook his head. “No, it’s really boring.”

This fellow was big into Updike. By sophomore year he’d already blazed through the man’s four pillars, the Rabbit tetralogy collectively known by the Everyman Library title Rabbit Angstrom. They’re among the best books I’ve ever read. I took in the first one and then the others, slowly, perhaps one a year. I appreciated that these were books probably best ingested one a decade, the same way they were written. As with Proust, who is probably his most direct influence in terms of elucidating the everyday (he once called it giving “the mundane its beautiful due“), Updike’s qualities both grow and diminish as the reader ages. Things he found interesting as a young man appeal to the young, while his observations on old age will, I’m guessing, become richer with the years.

Among his contemporaries (Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer) Updike is the most likely to write about something outside his sphere. Especially late in his career he moved away from Northeastern bourgeois couplehood and pulled a Paul Simon, writing  novels about an African dictator, a magical Brazilian romance, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi try, and one late, peculiar novel about a teenage terrorist.

He is also diverse in his output. Updike published novels, short story collections, poetry, children’s books, and literary criticism. He was a regular in the New Yorker, both with short stories and his novel reviews. I remember visiting a bookstore in his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea shortly before he died. He had previously donated much of his vast collection of books to the store, including those he’d reviewed for the New Yorker. There were a number with his delicate script, taking notes, underlining passages. I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin that he’d marked up. Sometimes something as simple as an exclamation point in the margin. Or, I think I recall, an enthusiastic Yes!

We crossed paths only once when he came by a radio station where I was working for an interview. I didn’t stop him to talk because at the time I was reading a Rabbit book he’d written decades before. I thought it was silly talking to an author about something he’d written so long ago it might have felt like it was by a different person. But I wish now that I had talked to him, but not about his own book. Updike loved the written word so much, it would have made sense to ignore his own work and settle on someone else’s novel for discussion. Whatever it was, I’m sure he’d have something to say.

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  1. […] novelist David Foster Wallace was a big fan of John Updike’s work. No wonder. As I wrote before, Updike is an English major’s sort of writer. He makes you want to write better yourself. But […]

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