Cuddly in His Rabbit Suit, Clever Updike Charms a Critic

Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, “Rabbit Remembered,” by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf, 359 pages, $25.

Updike: America’s Man of Letters , by William H. Pritchard. Steerforth Press, 351 pages, $27.

Admiring John Updike is a full-time job. And a stressful one, too: There’s the gross tonnage,thecumulative weight of all those well-chosen words. There’s the constant juggling needed to keep track of his work in various genres and styles (he’s a true P.E.N.-pal: poet, essayist, novelist–and that’s leaving aside some 200 short stories). There’s the crowd-control needed to contain the stampede of recurring characters (so much tidier to put all one’s alter egos in one basket, à la Zuckerman). There’s the demanding task of defending our prolific hero against prolific criticism, some of it ominously convincing. And, most recently, there’s the author’s gloomy twilight mood: He grumbles about a shrinking readership, he drones complaints about old age (he’s 68).

Luckily, a champion has emerged who’s willing to shoulder the burden: William H. Pritchard, a steady academic (he’s taught at Amherst College since 1958), not only defends Mr. Updike against all comers but also classifies the inexhaustible output and ranks it–from good to great. Which allows the less ambitious Updike admirer to kick back and laze through his latest, Licks of Love (with its promised treat of a Rabbit sequel), in effortless-consumption mode. No need to worry about the author stumbling or the reader dozing: Mr. Pritchard is on duty, cheering us on with the assurance that “Updike is never less than an interesting writer, and at his best a major one.”

It’s true that Mr. Pritchard wrote Updike: America’s Man of Letters before he had a chance to sample Licks of Love , nearly half of which is decidedly uninteresting and only approaches anything “major” when Mr. Updike slips on his Rabbit suit. The valiant Mr. Pritchard would surely hasten to remind us that in the dozen short stories that precede “Rabbit Remembered,” there’s always the shimmering Updike prose flashing signs of genius: “[T]he critic is left feeling superfluous, reduced to quoting and shaking his head admiringly.”

Yes, our hero gives good quote. From the jumble of forgettable stories in Licks of Love , a selection of memorable sentences. He can do trains: “Toward dawn there was a prolonged bright ruckus that must have been Buffalo.” He can do planes: “The Aeroflot plane from Paris smelled of boiled potatoes, as I recall, and the stewardesses were as hefty as packed suitcases.” And he can do automobiles (late-night taxis in Manhattan, to be precise): “Those rides through the almost deserted city had a clean, clicking feeling: I was back on track.” A bonus for those who like to keep an eye on Mr. Updike’s gender talk: “A woman was a circle whose center was slightly elsewhere.”

Mr. Pritchard has 50 Updike books from which to quote, but even with all that dazzle at his disposal, the pronouncements he risks are tentative. His boldest pitch: “I should want to say of him what he once wrote about Vladimir Nabokov … [that he is] ‘the best writer of English prose at present holding American citizenship.'” I should want to say … Out with it, Pritchard! John Updike rules!

“I am not mainly an interpreter of literature,” Mr. Pritchard writes; his aim is rather to evaluate the experience of reading and to suggest “how that experience is a vital one.” He trudges through the Updike oeuvre chronologically, dispensing cautious praise. Of the Farm (1965) is “a distinct literary triumph.” Couples he’s not so sure about, but in the end declares it “bold.” He likes the prose in Witches of Eastwick (1984)–”it could reasonably be maintained that Updike has never written better.” Roger’s Version (1986) is the author’s “strangest” and “most ambitious” book, “and … the Rabbit books aside … his best novel since The Centaur ” (1963). Rabbit at Rest (1990) is the “prime achievement.”

With every new title, the suspense builds: Will Mr. Pritchard encounter an Updike book–just one book–he doesn’t like? Twist his arm and he’ll admit to misgivings about S (1988): If he were “forced to rank it among Updike’s other novels,” he would give S “minority status, while insisting that it can be read and reread with pleasure.” At last, after 300 pages, in an abject parenthesis, he respectfully declines to discuss Brazil (1994), calling it Mr. Updike’s “least successful” novel. But how does Mr. Pritchard cope with the clamor of anti-Updike critics? He dutifully registers each naysayer’s opinion (David Foster Wallace and Sven Birkerts writing in The Observer , or James Wood in The New Republic , or Frederick Crews in The New York Review of Books ); he solemnly offers to consider the criticism; and then he buries it under dump-truck loads of Mr. Updike’s all-conquering prose.

Does Mr. Pritchard ever express an ungenerous or impatient thought? Could he spit out something like Harold Bloom’s swift dismissal of our hero as a “minor novelist with a major style”? No chance. Gentle Professor Pritchard draws attention to the author’s “affirming tone” and “good-hearted vision of things.” Where Hawthorne says “No, in Thunder” (according to Melville), Updike says “Yes, in Sunshine” (according to Pritchard). According to me, the author of Updike: America’s Man of Letters says “Yes”–24/7, whatever the weather. His adulation is numbing; it actually dulls your sense of the tremendous Updike talent.

Did I mention a gloomy twilight mood? Well, “Rabbit Remembered” begins on the downbeat. There’s poor dumb Janice, Harry Angstrom’s widow (now married to Harry’s sometime friend, the egregious Ronnie Harrison). Janice is still sampling the sauce, but nothing messy like back in 1959, when she drowned her baby girl, Becky (that was in Rabbit, Run [1960]). In “Rabbit Remembered,” the doorbell rings (“the old bell scrapes the silence”), and Janice is face-to-face with Annabelle Byer, Harry’s illegitimate child by Ruth Leonard (the woman Harry was living with in 1959 when Janice, having swallowed a few drinks, made the mistake of giving her infant daughter a bath– now you remember). Annabelle is Harry’s “emissary from the grave”; she’s “just like him, cocky and innocent.” She threatens to suck Janice back into “the past’s sad damp pit.”

And Nelson, Janice and Harry’s son, poor pathetic Nelson? His wife (the one who slept with Harry in Rabbit at Rest ) has left him and taken the two children home to Ohio. He’s a poorly paid social worker still living with his mother–but at least he’s kicked his coke habit. Nelson befriends his half-sister Annabelle, and together they spend a disastrous Thanksgiving and an anticlimactic millennium New Year’s Eve. They talk and talk about their father. (“He was narcissistically impaired,” says Nelson in 90’s rehab-speak. At one point Janice thinks: “But how beautiful he had been.”) Everyone has a postmortem thought for Harry, even though the mortem occurred 10 years ago. That’s it, folks: “Rabbit Remembered.”

But wait–let’s make room for Mr. Pritchard, who would insist that we consider the glorious prose. (He’s right again: Mr. Updike still sees everything and can translate it, miraculously intact, to the page.) Our faithful critic would also point out the upbeat ending: Annabelle hoping to marry, Nelson back with his wife–and the cheerful final word: “Gladly.” After all, the Rabbit books are a gorgeously faithful decade-by-decade record of our America, and Mr. Updike, even at his grumpiest, loves his country.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.