Though New York could not claim John Updike as a native son, nor even an adopted one (he preferred the flinty seaports of New England to our glittering streets), surely the greatest concentration of his devotees live here. Perhaps in the excruciatingly detailed depiction of suburban malaise that filled his best, or at least his best-known work, they affirmed their devotion to city life. And his ability to capture America in prose as the country tried to assert an anguished innocence against the dark wing-beats of history—Vietnam, Nixon, the Cold War—made him a trusted and beloved mirror for those New Yorkers who found themselves in need of literature in trying times both personal and political.
Updike’s work ethic—a novel every few years, plus reams of short stories, criticism, essays and poetry—was one to which all writers aspire. His endless appetite for literature and art and his unsnobbish curiosity about all forms of culture also resembled that of a New Yorker at his best.
What will be missed most about Updike is his generosity—not to be confused with a neologism that surely would’ve amused (or perhaps horrified) him, “overshare.” Without ever splattering his guts on the kitchen table, the author was supremely giving of himself, in interviews and ceremony and in his complete commitment to the written word. In an era when cancer is written about before it’s even diagnosed, it came as a shock that he had been afflicted with the disease for some time. There was no long, drawn-out farewell, no exit interview, no chance to add a remedial Nobel to his countless accolades.
He was gracious; he was brilliant; he was a gentleman without being a wimp.
And—something people often forget in the face of all those piles of erudition—he was funny.
“Why does everybody want to go to New York? What’s in New York?” asks a green-clad rental-car agent in the novel Marry Me.
“The Liberty Bell,” Updike’s protagonist tells her.
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