There’s a problem, right at the start, with trying to write about John Updike. After you finish your first sentence, you might find yourself looking at it and mentally comparing it to the types of sentences you remember from books written by Updike himself. This is not a good way to boost your confidence as you begin. It’s a good way to make yourself consider another line of work.
For such a canonical author, Updike, who died this week at 76, inspired severely mixed reactions. The common criticisms of him—he was self-absorbed , chauvinistic, and prolific to a fault, he was old and white and male, he was about style not substance—were not wholly unjustified, I suppose, though he was a more varied writer, in form and subject matter, than his critics gave him credit for. More than one person has said, after seeing a dozen or so of his books on the shelves in my apartment, “I just can’t read him.” I had the opposite reaction: For a long time, I couldn’t not read him. I was addicted to his sentences, his paragraphs, his stories, his novels.
A decade ago I went on an Updike binge, reading 17 of his books in the course of about 12 months. (I don’t know why that highly exact number sticks with me, but it does.) I liked him partly because he was from the outskirts of Reading, a Pennsylvania town that’s similar in size and make-up to the one where I grew up. The story of his move from that tiny outpost to the New Yorker without any family connections was inspiring. But I liked him mostly because of his sentences, and because by the time I was halfway through one of his books, I would begin to look at the world in a busier, more detailed way. I still have this experience after a long exposure to his writing, and it’s still just as exhilarating. The last time it happened was during the 2006 French Open, when I took along his new novel at the time, Villages. It really wasn’t all that new; it was the latest in a long line of his books that were rough fictional chronicles of his life, from PA farm boy to swinging New England suburbanite to uncomfortably settled grandpa. I knew the tale well—one of those 17 books I read way back when had been his autobiography, Self Consciousness; another had been a book about one man's obsession with him, the great U & I by Nicholson Baker. But during the tournament, rather than seeing new sights in Paris, I sought out one favorite café and read Updike. In a way, it was a great method for visiting the city—I saw it in a whole new light just from the way my brain was working.
In the mid-90s, I had a job as a proofreader on the midnight shift at an investment bank. Don’t ask how I ended up there; each night at 3 A.M. I found myself praying that someday I would be allowed to work during the day at a job. Any job. Digging ditches, I didn’t care. The only upside to the graveyard shift was that I had time to read. On that job, I went through the four Rabbit books—each from the Brooklyn library, each in the tremendous original Knopf hardback editions with the double-lined jacket design—faster than anything I’ve read before or since. They were lifesavers.
That summer I read Couples, his 1968 stream-of-consciousness soap opera, in a small pink paperback edition at the Jersey shore. Apropos of its era, this is Updike unhinged. His observations are almost psychedelic. Here’s one that takes place on a tennis court, where ex-lovers are playing doubles: “Georgene contemplated him coldly. Beyond her green eyes and high-bridged nose, wire mesh of the tennis court; beyond the slope of summer grass whitening where wind touched it. Waves. Lattices. Combine and recombine. Dissolution. She whispered, ‘It must have been purely chemical.’”
Flowery? Yes—it’s not economical. Too much Joyce in there? Updike loved the old white guys. Martin Amis was right about Couples when he said it was a “shimmering false peak,” a brilliant overreach. But it cast a spell over me at the shore; who else could make the wealthy suburbs of the early 60s seem sinister?
Updike’s best stuff is tougher, but just as lyrical, from the Hemingway-like early stories to the vicious, semi-autobiographical marriage-and-divorce stories about a couple named the Maples. Here’s the opening line to Rabbit is Rich: “Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The ----ing world is running out of gas.” Love that: traffic that’s “thin and scared.” Updike is thought of as bourgeois and comfortable, but if you want a piece of art that dances around with an unmentionable taboo, you won’t do any better than his Maples story “Sublimating.”
Naturally he was a better sportswriter than anyone else when he bothered with it. I remember being a little disappointed when I first read “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” his story about Ted Williams’ final game at Fenway. But I skimmed it again this week and found two immortal lines that come back to back. The first is about how Williams never came out for a curtain call, and he didn’t on this final day, even after hitting a home run. Updike understood why: “Gods don’t answer letters,” he wrote. Then he began the next paragraph with a sentence just as perfect: “Every true story has an anti-climax.”
Updike’s own death seemed a terrible anti-climax. He had smoked from childhood into, I believe, his 40s, with a peak of three packs a day in college. I wondered how he’d beaten lung cancer, but it caught up to him decades later. It was still too early; he was going strong. Who will write those sentences now?
I gave it a shot once. During those long proofreading nights, I was also scribbling down, by hand, music reviews for a small indie-rock magazine. In the grip of Updike—and a little bit of Saul Bellow—I worked for many hours on a short review of a show by two ultra-obscure bands called the Mountain Goats and Papas Fritas. There had been a total of about 15 people at the show, but I wanted this to be the best-written review in the history of rock. After all that labor, I finally got down, almost by accident, a short sentence describing one of the lead singers that I thought was somehow worthy of a serious novel. But that was the only sentence; the rest of them were typical rock-critic stuff. Updike, my fellow Pennsylvanian but so much more, had written 50 million sentences like that over the years. I’d managed one.
I sent the review in and got an email back from the editor, Katherine, a fellow lit lover. She singled out that one sentence and said it reminded her of John Updike's style. I'll never get a better compliment.