John Updike's Lyricism Exalted the Everyday and the Unglamorous

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"Tell you what, I'm having lunch with Barbara in an hour," I said, and it was true. Then the punch line. "I'll put in a good word for you." It was another joke on both of us that he processed with a small smile. I attempted praise as we parted, but his face tightened with disappointment in me, it seemed, and I stopped.

And now he's dead, at 76, and he remains arguably the American writer who has evoked reality brilliantly more often than any other. Twain gave us the Mississippi at night, and Hemingway gave us his edgy woods and cities, particularly in his early work, but Updike did it for his whole career, in good books and mediocre ones, essays, criticism and poetry. He did it all.

In one his lesser novels, "The Witches of Eastwick," he describes a moment of New England weather, a storm building: "The wind stiffened, and the sky toward Providence stood revealed as possessing the density of some translucent, empurpled rock. . . . At the base of this cliff of atmosphere cumulus clouds, moments ago as innocuous as flowers afloat in a pond, had begun to boil, their edges brilliant as marble against the blackening air."

He revels in the details of dailiness, the sacred and the profane. He describes Linotype machines, golf courses, the workings of a Toyota dealership and a small-town drugstore in Delaware in fierce and loving detail.

He loved Proust and Joyce. But he wrote like a true American, in a prose so graceful that you never had to stop to parse your way through clumsiness or confusion or anything but a surprise that left you breathless.

Critic James Wolcott said it as well as anybody when he called Updike "the supreme archer" of American letters, "drawing back the bow with nimble fingers and a steady pull."

The protagonist of "Roger's Version" summed up the feelings of a lot of us when he asked: "Why does life feel, to us as we experience it, so desperately urgent and so utterly pointless at the same time?"

In "Rabbit, Run," he writes about his Everyman hero of an urgent, pointless life, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, having sex with a small-town prostitute who enjoys his company but likes to get business taken care of.

"With thin, thin arms she hugs him and presses him down and rises above him. From her high smooth shoulders down she is one long underbelly erect in the light above him; he says in praise softly, 'Hey.'

"She answers, 'Hey.'

" 'You're pretty.'

" 'Come on, work.' "

He once said that he wanted to write about sex as it really is, and he would go on in later books to provide a plethora of sex scenes full of the awkwardness and banality that accompany the ecstasy. Sometimes he failed by showing the lovemaking too clinically, but Updike was never a warm writer -- you admired him, you enjoyed him, but you didn't love him. Some women seemed to dislike his books in a way they couldn't explain, or a way men couldn't understand.

He will be remembered not least for a New Yorker piece called "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," about Ted Williams's last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. There are sportswriters in America who can quote it from memory. It was a good match -- Williams was the technical master of hitting a baseball the way Updike was the technical master of American style.

"Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities."

In that last trip to the plate, Williams hit a home run, the sort of miracle that seems to occur most often for the very best writers and reporters.

He circled the bases and disappeared into the dugout.

"Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is non-transferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters."

Updike was a literary writer, all the way, and he could slip into preciousness now and then, but instead of taking as his subject the static, ironic esoterica of what Terry Southern mocked as "the quality lit game," he chose as the protagonist for his four-volume Rabbit masterpiece a failed ex-basketball star at his local high school, a common man, a philandering, vulgar but oddly God-haunted man with an alcoholic wife and a string of bad jobs, Rabbit Angstrom.

Updike didn't ennoble him, in the manner of 1930s writers ennobling the working stiffs, and he didn't condescend to him in the manner of literary journalists who both fear and romanticize the lower classes.

He once wrote of an upbringing by a schoolteacher father and an aspiring-writer mother who "accommodated . . . my strange ambition to be glamorous." But he never was glamorous. No head-butting with Norman Mailer, no epic drinking bouts in the manner of Hemingway, no swanning about the Hamptons like Truman Capote. He eschewed the visceral expressionism of Jack Kerouac, and the existentialism and irony of everyone else. He believed in that most questioned entity of arts and philsophy in our time, reality, as given by a God who occupied much of his writing. Just to be sure that glamour didn't grab him, and just as his writing career began to take off in the 1950s, he left the "cultural hassle" of New York and settled his family in Ipswich, Mass., a suburb of Boston, where no one is glamorous.

It was as if he didn't want to join the priesthood of American writers, he just wanted to write about the America of his time, in the democratic spirit so scorned by 20th century cultural elites. He disdained elitist leftism, supported the Vietnam War, had a boyhood crush on Doris Day and said that gourmet food was wasted on him.

He said in an interview in Life magazine that "the idea of a hero is aristocratic. Now either nobody is a hero or everyone is. I vote for everyone."

In the lonely aftermath of a Christmas afternoon at 19, I opened the first edition of "Rabbit, Run," the same book that's sitting on my lap now, and I read:

"Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches. . . . He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up."

Nobody crowded Updike up.

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