A Writer At Rest
And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market-the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heart beat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same. Perfection Wasted — John Updike
My hero John Updike died last month of lung cancer at a hospice in suburban Massachusetts. A master narrator, he was a skilled oarsman meticulously ferrying his passengers across a dark river to wander the dimly lit bayous of Middle America.
He prowled the back streets and alleys of Anglo-Saxon America for five decades – gently tending the fires to illuminate the unfulfilled underbelly of small towns and small thinkers. He once told Life magazine that his subject “ is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” His magnificent writing existed in that rare literary greenbelt that separates poetry and fiction. His characters were often flawed Greek tragedies – mortals stumbling through a universe of moribund marriages, failed dreams, invisible constraints and electric sexual tension.
To a young English major who could not yet properly identify the profound that lay hidden within the prosaic, Updike was an inspiration. He had been to the mountain top and descended with a stone tablet that deciphered the strange alchemy of the human condition – a mixture of larceny and compassion, adultery and dogged faith, black desires and noble aspirations. In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike injected the genomes of human frailty into a small town, former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom whose serial restlessness and inability to understand his deepest needs condemned him to a potholed road of detours, disappointments and desperate liaisons. Yet, Rabbit captivated us and was Updike’s foil to simultaneously cuff and embrace the American way at the same time. James Woods described Updike as “ a prose writer of great beauty…that described the aching gap between God and his creatures”.
Critic Adam Gopnik related, “ Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful. Unlike his European contemporaries, who saw the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike was close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaded about plenty.) He viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”
While he viewed America through a sober lens, he never stopped loving it. It was as if he saw the nation for what it was – a stumbling adolescent whose life lessons must be learned the hard way and whose serial inability to learn from the past would condemn it to center stage as an endearing moral and social recidivist. Updike once barked that “ most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”
Updike offered conditional emancipation for Middle America tangled in lives of self -righteousness and repressed temptation. His liberation was not in the condoning the behavior of his conflicted protagonists but was instead expressed in the absence of formal reproach. He was our mirror and cheerleader. Instead of whisking his readers to far off places populated by strange characters and imaginary misfits, he drove us right back into our own neighborhoods, peering through silk drapes and the soft light cast from other rooms to gaze on souls leading lives that fell into the unimaginative seams that separated the uninspired and the inspired. He offered us a life that was an uneven box, deep and dark with broad possibilities but never tied neatly with a bow or wrapping. He celebrated our “enigmatic dullness”. He was our champion and our critic all at the same time. Updike became the treasured spokesperson for the Silent generation who grew up unevenly under the repressed, filtered light of Depression maturity only to burst into the wild excesses of an adolescent society in full rebellion.
In his Bech series of books, he created his own alter ego – a cynical Jewish American novelist who stumbles through amorous liaisons and the thick twisted forest of the literary world. Bech offers us a glimpse into Updike and his unforgiving patriotism, sardonic sense of humor and relentlessly delicious need for venal satisfaction – revenge, sexual desire and love.
He won two Pulitzer prizes – only one of three American authors to ever achieve such an honor. He loved golf and endlessly pursued the redemption that could only be found pushing a dimpled ball recklessly along green manicured fairways. He advocated for human rights and helped America come to grips with its own shadows. He was our burning bush. Ever the optimist, Updike’s characters muddled through every possible storm that life could throw at them. They weaved their way across life and were celebrated if for no other reason than for just being.
“We do survive every moment after all “, he said ” except the last one.”