Renegade Updike

By Marie Arana
Wednesday, January 28, 2009; 9:07 AM

The first time I saw John Updike in the flesh I was startled by how much he resembled his caricatures: He was smaller than I expected, with tiny, piercing eyes and a pronounced proboscis that made him seem almost rodent-like. Soft-spoken and keenly observant, he had none of the obvious personal hubris that so often accompanies literary fame.

He had come to Washington to discuss Brazil, a novel that was a wild aberration from the rest of his oeuvre. He was best known, after all, for his Rabbit series, intensely realistic novels; or Couples, a huge and controversial bestseller about cavorting New England suburbanites; and a great flurry of novels about men in small-town, Protestant America. Brazil was a vertiginous departure, a work of magical realism in which the love story of Tristan and Isolde is radically transported into the slums and rainforests of South America. He seemed simultaneously thrilled and taken aback that we had chosen it as a Washington Post Book Club selection. When it had first appeared in 1994, the critics hadn't quite known what to make of it. Over a quick drink before the interview, he confessed it was one of his favorites. Precisely because it had been such a renegade child.

As I drove him and his wife, Martha, to the event, she fussed on about the arrangements: the chair he would sit in, the food he would be served, the signing that would follow the interview. It was the fall of 2003, a mere five years before he succumbed to lung cancer, and only she knew how delicate he really was.

He seemed even more physically afflicted the next time I saw him. It was at the 2006 BookExpo, the largest annual gathering of booksellers in the country, and he and I were sharing the stage with none other than Senator Barack Obama, whose newly published memoir, The Audacity of Hope, marked the launch of a presidential campaign. Updike was ever the charming interlocutor in the green room, but when he took the microphone, he was nearly shaking with rage, excoriating a culture in which independent bookstores and public libraries had taken a back seat to tawdry and fleeting computer-screen entertainments.

Two years later, in October of 2008, in what was surely one of his last press interviews, he confessed to me that that rage had been, no doubt, the ravings of an old man. It was hard to see institutions he had treasured as a boy -- bookstores and libraries where he had learned his trade -- slip away in the irreversible tide of a cheapening culture. Perhaps the Nobel Prize Committee chairman was right, after all, when he accused Americans of being insular, isolated and vulgar, he said. Where were the Americans who lived to read? Where were those "citadels of light" -- the wonderfully quirky, lovingly tended bookstores of yesteryear? Updike seemed almost glad to be at the end of his life and career.

Even in advanced age, even as the victim of a debilitating disease, however, John Updike could muster a fearsome outrage. It was never in his tone of voice, which was always polite and measured. It was in his words, which he deployed like weapons.

He was one of America's most prolific and passionate literary figure -- a novelist, short story writer, poet and literary critic who has left dozens of books and hundreds of probing pieces about who we Americans are. Criticized fiercely by many of my gender as a chauvinist for his apparent lack of sympathy for female characters, he was saddened to think he might be remembered that way. "I write what I know," he once told me. "I can't try to please the critics. They'll always find fault, even if I do."

He admitted that he had tried to please his critics by writing a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. His last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, published just last year, turns that circle of wicked, libidinous women into post-menopausal, tempered, almost sweet old ladies. It is a strikingly tender view. And it makes for a wistful recessional. But Updike had been thinking of old age for a long time. His Bech series is a poignant consideration of what it means to grow old and die.

Wrestling as mightily as he did with a prodigious number of subjects, Updike leaves us an incomparable portrait of America in late 20th century. Readers will remember him for stylish essays in the New Yorker, for superbly honed, muscular short stories, for feisty novels about the American male libido. I will remember him most of all for that valiant spirit of inquiry that led him to write a book like Brazil, or even to consider responding to his critics with a sequel. Three months before his death, his mind was as vibrant and questing as ever. "My next book," he told me, "will be about children."

That tenacity brings to mind a line from one of his lesser-known novels, A Month of Sundays: "Suspect each moment," he wrote, "for it is a thief, tiptoeing away with more than it brings."

The moment has stolen John Updike. But he knew to leave much behind.

Marie Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post, is the former editor of Book World. Her most recent novel "Lima Nights" was just published this month.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company