A Jolly Geezer, Updike Is Back

Just five years ago, age 66, John Updike was a sour old geezer, humped with envy, pouring out complaints. He’s always graceful and prolix, even when he’s bitter-nothing can stop the prodigious flow of his words (20 novels now and counting, more than 50 books all told, essays and reviews in assorted periodicals on what must be a monthly basis). But that downbeat tone was dismal-and revealing, too. He bashed Tom Wolfe. He sent his alter ego, Henry Bech, on a killing spree-each victim was a book critic. He moaned about being “a vanished man” (“you go into an airport bookstore,” he told an interviewer, “and there’s no Updike there”). Rabbit was at rest-dead of a heart attack-and gloom had enveloped his creator; a fade to black seemed the only plausible dénouement.

Now, age 71, a fat collection of his early stories under his arm and his grin as wolfish as it was in the days when Couples (1968) scaled the best-seller list, John Updike has bounced back: “I’m beyond worrying about aging,” he laughs. “I’m so old I can’t age anymore.” When I found him waiting in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Boston (his preferred venue for interviews-his wife won’t allow them at his home on the North Shore), he jumped to his feet with the ease of a young man. His hair is white and his teeth yellowed, his long, old-fogey eyebrows spill over like curtains, but his eyes are bright and still signal gentle amusement, softening the mischief in his grin.

In the hotel bar, at a table pressed up against a vast picture window looking out over the Public Gardens, we talked for two and a half hours, a tour of the Updike cosmos that took in golf, girl-watching, body-piercing, George W. Bush, J.M. Coetzee, Manhattan in the 1950’s and a joke he picked up on a recent tour in Germany. (What comes between fear and sex? Fünf .)

What’s happened to the grouch who deplored the weary rounds of publicity required by publishers? “What a pity it is,” he whinged to a radio interviewer in 1998, “to turn every writer into a sort of sales placard for his work.”

The rejuvenation of John Updike, like nearly everything else in his career, comes back to books: He spent a year arranging and lightly revising the 103 short stories that make up The Early Stories: 1953-1975 , a task he found himself enjoying in an almost primitive way. “The artistic impulse as I experienced it as a very young fellow,” he explained, “had two elements: the collecting urge-baseball cards, stamps-I had to make sets; and also the notion of making something better, of improvement.” Editing and shaping The Early Stories -the book follows the rough narrative arc of Mr. Updike’s life through the end of his first marriage-“had the charm of the collecting thing and also the possibility of making [the stories] better one by one, and also better in this arrangement.” He’s unabashedly proud of the 838-page tome: “I saw the stories as things I probably couldn’t do now. A young man’s world, a vanished America.”

Not quite vanished: It’s there on the page, captured whole, not just a record of his youth but a celebration of three decades of our country’s postwar evolution.

Smack in the middle of the book, in “How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time,” a 1972 story that originally appeared in The New Yorker (like 79 of the others), a bold proclamation defines the scope of Mr. Updike’s fictional enterprise: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” From the first of these stories (“Ace in the Hole,” which he submitted to a creative-writing course in his senior year at Harvard College) to the last, he’s exploring ways in which the conspiracy fails. He dramatizes regrets and misgivings, missed opportunities and betrayals, fragile victories, compromises and confusions-the daily accidents we suffer in a nation that declared its own existence and in the same breath affirmed its dedication to “the Pursuit of Happiness.”

One of the most famous of the stories collected in the new book, “A & P” (1960), with its succinctly transcontinental title, has always seemed to me quintessential Updike. Not everyone agrees: “My first wife read it,” Mr. Updike told me, “and she said, ‘It’s awfully Salingeresque.’ But that didn’t stop me from typing it up and submitting it.” The story does begin on a Salinger note, in the narrator’s colloquial voice: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” The caressing eye that tracks the girls up and down the supermarket aisles is unmistakably Mr. Updike in Eros mode:

“She had on a kind of dirty-pink-beige maybe, I don’t know-bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.”

The narrator, a clerk at the A&P, hears the sounds of his cash register as a little song: “‘Hello ( bing ) there, you ( gung ) hap-py pee -pul ( splat )!’-the splat being the drawer flying out.” Charming and precisely observed, this detail does seem to come to us from a vanished America, before the advent of scanners and their tuneless, self-satisfied bleep.

Looking out at the Bostonians parading past the Ritz Carlton, Mr. Updike fiddled with his ear and remarked, “There’s a kind of convenience to American life. It’s adjustable, it’s loose-fitting. There’s fear, but it’s not state-sponsored. If you’re fearful, it’s that the other guy has too much freedom-the freedom to mug you, say. America’s still a vast conspiracy to make you happy-so when you’re not happy, it’s a failure as an American. If you’re not happy here, where can you be happy?” He’s amused by his own irritation at the smiley-face aspect of the culture, the “false cheer in this country, the have-a-nice-day syndrome.”

His head swiveled, the long beak pointed at a fast-moving pedestrian. “That is very curly hair on that girl.”

“Still watching?” I asked.

“From a grandpaternal point of view,” he assured me. “A lot of tension goes out of you after a certain menopausal stage has been reached.” His eyes, though, remain on high alert. “The male eye,” he explained, “is attuned to the hunt, and the girl-watching is part of the general hunting way of relating to the world.”

Mr. Updike’s stories, even the early ones set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Olinger, are steeped in love-thwarted love, nascent love, sated love, discarded love. The topic, however, brought us to the only rough spot in an otherwise astonishingly fluent stream of talk: “The whole thing of loving, of making contact with the female sex, of breaking out …. ” He tried again: “Venturing out, you’re sometimes welcome.” The briefest pause, followed by a guffaw. “I’m kind of simple-minded when I hear myself talk.”

He settled for this, which is less of an evasion than a segue: “In a peaceable life, the crises tend to be love-related. I’ve always felt not fighting in a war quite a handicap as a writer, without having much urge to actually fight in one. It deprives me of one of the great traditional topics-being right there with death. There’s a wonderful Tolstoy story in which the bullets are zipping by like bumblebees.”

Notorious in the literary word for refusing to protest the Vietnam War (a chapter in his 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness , is called “On Not Being a Dove”), Mr. Updike says he’s ambivalent about the war in Iraq: “My view is that the sanctions weren’t going anywhere except starving a lot of Iraqi babies, and that Saddam could play games with the U.N. forever, so something in me sympathized with George Bush’s desire to remove him. He’s paying for it, we’re all paying for it-the soldiers who are getting killed are paying for it. It’s very easy to say that this was a dreadful mistake, but I’m not sure that it was.”

He thinks George Bush is “a limited man” and would like to see him lose the next election, but even here, ambivalence creeps in. “I think it’s crazy to give tax cuts to the upper middle class. I’m afraid of what [Bush] would do to the Supreme Court if he could …. On the other hand, it’s my fatal flaw that I tend to see things from the standpoint of the people in power. I never caught that 60’s hatred [of the establishment]. I don’t feel the contempt for Bush that seems to be around in liberal circles, nor do I feel that he’s as pathologically dangerous as some people do-though I do think he’s going to bankrupt the country.

“Anybody who’s very convinced that he has God on his side is scary,” Mr. Updike said. “I don’t doubt that [Mr. Bush] views his sobering up and all the good things that have happened to him since then as, in some ways, God’s work.

“Holy moly!” he exclaimed abruptly, interrupting himself. “Did you see that … pedestrian? She looked like a model-modeling I don’t know what.” And just as suddenly, he resumed: “But most Presidents feel they are doing God’s work-you can’t pin it all on yourself. I’m keeping an eye on him to see if he has any messianic tendencies.”

Mr. Updike weathered the 1960’s in Ipswich, Mass., which is where the bulk of his early stories were written. He moved there in 1957 with his wife and three young children from New York City, where he had worked for nearly two years in the New Yorker offices. In the foreword to The Early Stories he calls this relocation “the crucial flight of my life, the flight from Manhattan.” Sipping tea in the safety of the Ritz Carlton bar, he added that “it took a little imagination to leave [and quit the staff job at The New Yorker ]. I went to a party at Brendan Gill’s in Bronxville, and it was full of these people I revered-Robert Coates, Janet Flanner, Gill himself; old New Yorker hands, people who had poured their creativity into the magazine-and they struck me as very sad; I’m not sure why. They all drank. I came home from that party and I said to my wife-in my memory, at least, my fabulizing memory-I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.'”

The portrait of the city that emerges from the stories written while he lived here is far from unflattering. There’s promise high and low. In “The Lucid Eye in Silver Town” (1956-1964), the young narrator, a boy from the country on his maiden visit, alights in Bryant Park. “Shimmering buildings arrowed upward and glinted through the treetops. This was New York, I told myself: the silver town. Towers of ambition rose, crystalline, within me.” In “Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow?” (1956), “the pavement glittered as if cement were precious.” And in “Snowing in Greenwich Village” (1956), a married man and a single girl walk a few short blocks to the girl’s apartment: “The snow, invisible except around streetlights, exerted a fluttering romantic pressure on their faces.”

But there’s menace, too, amidst the “godless millions.” For Mr. Updike, who has managed to sustain a mild, much pondered Christian faith, the city in those days posed a spiritual threat. “In Manhattan,” he writes in a story from 1961, “Christianity is so feeble its future seems before it.” “Godless and crushing” is how he remembers it: “You might well say that the universe is godless and crushing, and so it may be, but there was not much shelter from that fact in New York. Sunday in New York was kind of hideous-the day had lost is purpose, its shine, its tinsel. The city scared me, I guess.”

It still does. When I reminded him that he’ll be reading here very soon (on Monday Oct. 27, at the 92nd Street Y, to be precise), he shuddered. “I kind of dread it. Reading in New York isn’t like reading anywhere else. You read in the Midwest and you get these kids still sweating from the volleyball game, and they’re very appreciative of almost anything. In New York, they look at you like they’re pigeons and you’re bread crust that’s been tossed out on the curb.”

“I’m glad I spent those two years in New York. I like writing about it. I like being in Manhattan mentally, but I didn’t much like being there physically.” His attitude has remained unchanged for half a century. As he writes in the foreword to The Early Stories , the city feels “full of other writers and of cultural hassle, and the word game overrun with agents and wisenheimers.”

No regrets, then, about moving to New England, where his life sounds like an ideal retirement-golf, gardening, grandchildren-though he’s still very much at work. He has nearly finished a new novel. “I’ve gone back to the well again-back to the well of small-town life, small-town distress, small-town interlocking. I’ve tried to make it a little more sociological. There’s this voice that keeps breaking in with large theories, a voice that I entertain.” The new novel, he added, is “an uncomfortable book-but then I think every novel I’ve written has been uncomfortable, except possibly the Rabbit novels. Once he got to loping along and I got the characters named and I could see the cityscape in my mind, it was like a snowball-there was always more.”

We talked awhile of what he remembers about writing particular stories, the mornings spent in his rented one-room Ipswich office, smoking endless cigarettes and tapping the keys of a manual typewriter. “The best things in your work,” he said, “are the things that seem to come to you rather than you going to them.” I read him a line I like from “The Alligators,” an Olinger story he wrote 45 years ago, about a schoolboy teasing a little girl who’s had a bad haircut by “making the motion of a scissors with his fingers and its juicy ticking sound with his tongue.”

He savored the sentence a moment and nodded, “That’s kind of inspired, isn’t it?” It certainly achieves the stated goal of The Early Stories : “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

I asked about his golf game, and he told me he tries to play twice a week. “If I thought as hard about writing as I do about golf,” he said, “I might be a better writer-maybe win the Nobel Prize. It would not be Coetzee going up there in his rented white-tie outfit.” Was Mr. Updike surprised at the selection of the South African novelist? “Not really. He’s the kind of writer they like-a little exotic, faintly political. In his case, quite faintly: His books are not a cry against apartheid.” His praise for Mr. Coetzee was mild at first (“good writer-quite good”) and evolved into a genuine Updike compliment, however backhanded it may sound: “The books are not pleasant: They’re tough and disagreeable and even repulsive at moments-as is reality.”

“That description reminds me of Philip Roth’s novels,” I said.

Mr. Updike agreed. “They’re kind of about the need not to be nice. They’re about the temptation to be a nice Jewish boy instead of a truth-teller.”

If Mr. Updike (who has won just about every American literary prize worth mentioning) feels any disappointment at never having been awarded the Nobel, he concealed it with a show of jocular indifference. “I’m now aware of the first week in October-unlike Coetzee, who said he had no idea when they gave the prize out. But I’m sort of old. My moment … if it was ever there, it’s gone. How many 71-year-olds win it? Sixties is when they like to give it.”

I mentioned that Mr. Coetzee is notoriously terse in interviews, the antithesis of the genial Updike fluency. Mr. Updike approved: “He’s not spilling himself in a puppyish way, trying to please everybody.” Ah, yes. Puppyish, trying to please everybody: Mr. Updike’s biographer has noted that critics have faulted him for his propensity to say “Yes, in Sunshine to American phenomena.” When he approves of Mr. Coetzee clamming up, that’s John Updike in a nutshell: vigilant self-consciousness prompting him to poke fun at his own cheery disposition.

We parted, his puppyish compulsion to please intact. Nothing could ruffle the all-conquering Updike charm-or summon, if only for a brief encore, the grouch of 1998.

Mr. Updike crossed into the Public Garden, perfect in his herringbone tweed, tan corduroy trousers and brown loafers, unnoticed in the bright afternoon bustle, a slim, white-haired gent blending back into his anonymous New England life.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.