Saturday, January 31, 2009

John Hoyer Updike, 1932 - 2009

How sad to learn that writing and publishing 60 books—many superb—does not make one immortal. He never won the Nobel Prize. He didn't need to. The quality of his best work will carry him. His plots weren't memorable; unlike Dickens or even Steven King, he was no great story teller. He will be remembered mostly for the textures he created with words, and for the ideas, acute observations, and feelings those words carried. At his best he could wrap a feeling in language better than any living American writer. At his worst be overdid it. As his contemporary Norman Mailer complained in Advertisements for Myself, "[Updike], like many good young writers before him, does not know exactly what to do when action lapses, and so he cultivates his private vice, he writes." But observe how gorgeously Updike abuses his talent. Listen to him here, for instance, describing an encounter with a box of cough drops in Grand Central Station:
Coughdrop Hill took its name from its owner, whose coughdrops (“SICK? Suck an ESSICK!”) were congealed by the million in an Alton factory that flavored whole blocks of the city with the smell of menthol. They sold, in their little tangerine-colored boxes, throughout the East; the one time in my life I had been to Manhattan, I had been astonished to find, right in the throat of Paradise, on a counter in Grand Central Station, a homely ruddy row of them . . . In disbelief I bought a box. Sure enough, on the back, beneath an imposing miniature portrait of the factory, the fine print stated MADE IN ALTON, PA. And the box, opened, released the chill, ectoplasmic smell of Brubaker Street. The two cities of my life, the imaginary and the actual, were superimposed; I had never dreamed that Alton could touch New York. I put a coughdrop into my mouth to complete this delicious confusion and concentric penetration; my teeth sweetened and at the level of my eyes, a hollow mile beneath the ceiling that on an aqua sky displayed the constellations with sallow electric stars, my father’s yellow-knuckled hands wrung together nervously through my delay. I ceased to be impatient with him and became an anxious as he to catch the train home.

If this be sinning, then give me chastity, by all means—but not yet! Here is a writer who could make the paint on the side of a slowly passing truck seem to "weather in transit" in its slowness. There are countless moments like this in Updike's prose. It's the kind of writing you read for the sentences, and maybe the paragraphs, rather than for the scenes, chapters, and stories.

I watched a long cable television interview recently with Updike its subject and wherein viewers were allowed to phone in with comments and questions. One of the callers, after praising Updike's refusal to damn President Bush and his administration (a Republican, clearly) and noting the "technical perfection" of his work, went on to add "however" and to say that he found Updike's entire ouvre "boring." Mr. Updike sat with a bemused yet still painful look on his face, and then, when the caller had finished, said something to the effect that luckily for readers there were a great many books of all kinds to choose from, and so one needn't be bored. It was an extremely gracious reply to an extremely rude comment, and it made me realize one of Updike's chief characteristics as both author and man: his elegant decency. Those two words, perhaps, for better or worse, best describe him as a writer (they certainly describe him as a reviewer, one whose decency often skewed his assessments of other authors toward charity and even a touch of paternalism). They also describe his prose, at times too elegant and "decent" for its own—or its subjects'—good. Unlike Bellow, Updike could never roll up his sleeves, whip off his tie, and roll in the mud with thugs and hooligans: the vernacular simply was not in him. Stories of his like the heavily anthologized "A&P," in which he adopts the slang and bad grammar of a subliterate teenager, fail to convince: for all his wanting to get down and dirty Updike cannot keep his hands off of words like "deliberate' and "hereafter." If Updike's elegance got the best of him, it was because it was the best of him. I'm told he wore a rut into the floorboards under the desk where he worked from kicking his shoes back and forth in concentration on the floor. This tells me he wore shoes at his desk; it would not surprise me to learn that he wore a suit and tie as well. His was a buttoned-up soul. And America distrusts men who are too elegant. It feels much more at home with macho writers like James Jones and Mailer and slobs like Kesey and Kerouac.

A WASP who wrote mainly about WASPS, whose favorite sports were tennis and golf. Though I befriended him through his writing, I doubt very much that we'd have been friends for real, we were of such different worlds. Though we did share one thing in common: we were both big on cartoons, and had we been in the same class together he would have appreciated the caricatures I drew of everyone in high school—though by then he would already have been a devotee of the New Yorker, while I was reading MAD magazine. 

The passage that I quoted above cost me two hundred dollars to use in my book about writing. That's how much Alfred Knopf charged me. I still have the piece of paper Updike himself signed for the transaction. At the time I thought it was a stiff price to be charged for what I saw as a tribute; I felt, furthermore, that I needed that two-hundred bucks way more than Mr. Updike did. Now that he's gone, though, I'm glad to have paid him both money and tribute. He may not have won the Nobel Prize, but long ago he won my admiration.

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