John Updike's Lyricism Exalted the Everyday and the Unglamorous
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
On Christmas Day 1960, when I was 19 and had every intention of becoming the greatest living stylist in America, I opened a present, John Updike's "Rabbit, Run," and saw from the first few pages that as long as he lived -- and he was only nine years older than I -- I would not succeed. He was a dragon who would be unslayable.
Instead, he stalked me for 35 years, breathing the cool, ego-crushing fire of a style that didn't just evoke reality but also seemed to violate one of our most ancient taboos, the one against the making of graven images -- a style that created eerie holograms with 100 percent correspondence to the material world.
And then, one morning in June 1995, I looked across a gallery at the Whitney Museum in New York and saw him, the dragon himself. Taking notes like me, staring at the Edward Hoppers with mild eyes and beaked nose familiar from dust jackets, he seemed immense, "taller far than a tall man," as Sappho described the god Ares. To speak to him or not to speak? I remembered that he reviewed art for Barbara Epstein at the New York Review of Books. We were working colleagues for a moment, Updike and I.
I approached a slender, slightly stooped man who shrank reassuringly as I neared him.
"Aren't you John Updike?" I asked.
"I seem to be," he said in a low, careful tenor, the voice of a friendly dentist reminding you to floss, but a dentist who might have something going on with the receptionist.
It was a pleasant little joke on both of us.
His self-possession seemed all the more remarkable for his wry mildness. He looked like the A student and only child that he was, but had a certain physicality, as if he might be surprisingly good at one sport but no others.
I toured the show with him. He had studied art in England after drawing cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon, and he had some useful observations. Still, he was a dragon.
Then that patron saint of egotistical writers, who seems to be missing from our lives so much of the time, showed up.
"Barbara wants this piece very quickly," Updike said, "and I'm not accustomed to deadlines this close. She'll be very upset with me if I don't come through." The man who would write more than 50 books and win all the big prizes except the Nobel was just like every other writer, panicked by a deadline, unsure of how to write this thing, afraid of his editor, the whole angst.
Some mischievous imp replaced my patron saint. I couldn't resist.