Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike

John Updike died of cancer today at the age of 76.

I wasn’t a natural fan of John Updike. He was not John Cheever, the reigning chronicler of the suburbs whom I idolized in my university days. Cheever’s stories were easier to read, more direct, less disturbing than Updike's.

It wasn’t until I read the Rabbit books that I understood Updike’s genius.

With humor, pathos, and a complete lack of sentimentality, Updike wrote about Rabbit's hollow confusion and stumbling attempts to break away from his class paradigm. Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest seemed to describe my life, or rather the contiguous lives of lower-middle-class male relatives who played pick-up basketball, yearningly watched sports, and broke their wives’ hearts by picking up women and sometimes leaving their families. The scenes are so familiar: Rabbit running away and his wife Janice drinking; Rabbit returning to Janice, and the two trapped by conventions and tragedy; Rabbit eventually managing his father-in-law's car dealership while Janice blooms; and their son Nelson’s cocaine addiction.

Isn't this the stuff of all our lives? Even as a metaphor?

The Rabbit books meant so much to me that I vigorously chose Rabbit Is Rich for my reluctant book group in 2000. Nobody wanted to read it, but they were stunned by the beautiful writing and the easy flow of the story. It was the third of the Rabbit quartet, and they loved it and immediately changed their minds about Updike’s reputation for inducing boredom.

Old interviews with Updike are all over the internet today. He was brilliant, calm, and patient with reporters who asked the same questions again and again. Was he too old to write well? Did he think he’d written better in his youth? Updike, who had liver spots on his hands and apparently was already suffering from cancer last fall, talked about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the youth culture and America’s restless insistence on young talent.

His books were always there: something new to read in the teacher’s lounge at lunchtime. “Is that actually good?” someone asked, thinking I was posing as an intellectual when I read Memories of the Ford Administration. Oh please, give me a break.

“Of course.”

He won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award, so he certainly wasn't lacking in the awards department. But he should have won the Nobel for Rabbit if for nothing else

He was imminently readable.

Off to read Updike.

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