John Updike was the first person to make me laugh. I don’t remember this, but I have it on good authority: My father, who was his classmate at college, just sent me this sketch of the scene. The place was Cambridge, Mass.; the year was 1959:
“One day for some reason John came to see us alone, in the early afternoon. We were in our living room, which was flooded by the afternoon sun. You were in your Easy Chair, a contraption in universal use then among advanced couples, which allowed the pre-toddler to recline rather as though he were in a barber’s chair having his hair shampooed. One of John’s less-known talents was his skill as a juggler. He took three oranges from a bowl on the coffee table and began to juggle for you, and you began to laugh. Astonishing belly laughter.”
I don’t think I saw Updike again until I was already a critic and a reporter, a 35-year-old in awe of the great man but obliged by my profession to have opinions, critical opinions, about his work. By that time he’d made me laugh many times—maybe not the belly laughter of a 2-year-old, but as good as you can get with a literary novel in your hands.
And now the flow of words has finally stopped, one of the great outpourings ever to come from an American writer. There was quantity: 27 novels, over 60 books in all. And there was quality: the famous Updike prose, elaborate, ingenious, wonderfully mellifluous—we’re going to hear a lot over the next few days about the glory of his prose. There was the cool fluidity that never deserted him, in book after book after book. He had a topic, too, which he mined exhaustively: the psyche of the ordinary middle-class American male in the second half of the 20th century. (He once described his mission as the attempt to “transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery.”) But what made Updike different, what pumped up his talent and made him a giant presence on the literary landscape, was his restless mind, an intellectual curiosity that led him all over the globe and into every nook and cranny of modern life.
Very few people knew that he was ill. Two months ago at a photo shoot, according to Nicholas Latimer, director of publicity at Knopf, Updike’s publisher for the length of his 50-year career, he looked fit and healthy. And yet he died Tuesday morning, at a hospice in Danvers, Mass., of lung cancer.
“A big light has gone out,” said Ian McEwan, sounding dazed, minutes after he’d heard the news. Of course, Mr. McEwan mentioned the prose—“He turned a sentence better than anyone else”—but he moved quickly on, ticking off subjects Updike had written about with effortless grace: “computers, car dealerships, golf, art, science, human passion, with a reach that was unmatched.”
His best subject was John Updike. Imagine, for a moment, that all we had of Updike was his autobiographical and semi-autobiographical writing. The early novels set in and around the Pennsylvania neighborhoods he knew as a boy, his debut, The Poorhouse Fair (1959); The Centaur (1963); Of the Farm (1965); and the Olinger stories, “Pigeon Feathers” foremost among them. Those alone would count as an honorable life’s work for many a writer. Add in his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989), and all the material he filched from his later life in Manhattan (briefly) and Massachusetts, from his many loves (oh, his loves!), and you already have a great writer’s output.
And then there’s Rabbit. In an interview five years ago, he told me, “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.” From snowball to avalanche: The tetralogy covered four decades of Harry Angstrom and the whole country—Rabbit, he admitted in the introduction to the Everyman edition that gathered the four novels, “became too much a receptacle … for every item in the headlines.” Perhaps—but he brought us the news about ourselves.
Updike loved to be a bellwether. Couples (1968) landed him on the cover of Time magazine: He’d just invented sex in suburbia. Here, for example, is the wonderful grope in the laundry room:
“Janet’s chest and hips, pillows sodden with grief, pressed him against the enameled edge of the dryer; he was trapped at the confluence of cold tears and hot breath. He kissed her gaping mouth, the rutted powder of her cheeks, the shying trembling bulges of her shut eyes. Her body his height, they dragged each other down, into a heap of unwashed clothes, fluffy ends of shirtsleeves and pajama pants, the hard floor underneath them like a dank bone. Sobbing, she pulled up her sweater and orange-striped jersey and, in a moment of angry straining, uncoupled her bra, so her blue-white breasts came tumbling of their own loose weight, too big to hold, tumbled like laundry from the uplifted basket of herself, nipples buttons, veins seaweed green. He went under. Her cold nails contemplated the tensed sides of his sucking mouth, and sometimes a finger curiously searched out his tongue. Harold opened his eyes to see that the great window giving on the lawn was solidly golden; no child’s watching shadow cleft it … His face was half-pillowed in dirty clothes smelling mildly of his family, of Jonathan and Julia and Henrietta and Marcia. He was lying on ghosts that had innocently sweated. Janet’s touch fumbled at his fly and he found the insect teeth of the zipper snug along her side. Tszzc: he tugged and the small neat startled sound awoke them. ‘No,’ she said. ‘We can’t. Not here.’”
Unlike Philip Roth, Updike had no late-innings rally. None of his best novels were written in the last decade. (By the way, let it never be forgotten that he wrote one of the great pieces of baseball journalism, on Ted Williams’ home run in his last at-bat in 1960: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” in The New Yorker: “Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”)
It can’t be said that he never repeated himself—the reiteration of Rabbit, The Widows of Eastwick (2008) limping after The Witches of Eastwick (1984)—but mostly he swerved, taking the unpredictable tack, often with stunning results. Remember The Coup (1978)? What was Updike doing in Africa? Writing, it turned out, a best seller. He sent Bech, his alter ego, to Eastern Europe and Russia with hilarious results. In Terrorist (2006), he ventured into the mind of an Arab-American teenager, a devout Muslim, and pulled it off. Other expeditions into exotic realms were less successful. Gertrude and Claudius (2000), the Hamlet prequel, a journey into the distant past, was a curiosity and a challenge, one of several novels in which his agile intellect outstripped his human heart.
His criticism, however, remained as lucid and incisive as ever, and he himself, the literary personage, experienced a kind of flowering in the last half-dozen years. At age 65, he was something of a sourpuss, whingeing abut the decline of literacy (“You go into an airport bookstore,” he told an interviewer, “and there’s no Updike there”) and feuding with Tom Wolfe.
But when I interviewed him (for the last time) in 2003, he was once again the sly, winking, devilishly clever man of letters who set the standard, for decades, on how to charm the reading public. “If I thought as hard about writing as I do about golf,” he told me, “I might be a better writer—maybe win the Nobel prize.” He didn’t seem so disappointed that his “moment,” as he called it, his chance for a trip to Stockholm, had passed. “How many 71-year-olds win it?” he asked. “Sixties is when they like to give it.”
He was a mildly mischievous gent, wonderful-looking with his long eyebrows and his long nose and wolfish grin. “I’m beyond worrying about aging,” he said, laughing. “I’m so old I can’t age anymore.” He was, as far as I could tell, content.
He once wrote, “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” I had thought that he would resist always. But it seems he succumbed.
Adam Begley is editor of the Observer Review of Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.