January 27, 2009

John Updike is dead

The great American novelist has died at 76.

I reread his 1978 book The Coup while writing America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's "Story of Race and Inheritance" because of the extraordinary parallels between his protagonist's life and the Obama family saga. The Coup is an absolute comic joy to read, better than Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief and the equal of Waugh's Scoop, which is my all-time favorite book. Like most political books, including Scoop, the plot gets preposterous toward the end, but so what?

Updike was a combination of the lyric poet (a talent that skews young) and the social novelist (a talent that skews old), so his peak came right in the middle, in his forties with The Coup and Rabbit Is Rich (1981).

Updike described his apogee with Rabbit Is Rich, the third in his four-book Rabbit series, in a 1990 essay:

When the time came, when 1979 came - each novel, by the way, was written in a different house, as it turned out, at a different address - I was in a different town, I had a different wife, a different sense of myself. I was full of beans, really, looking back on it from my present relatively beanless condition. I was in my mid-40's, just a kid. The town we lived in, I should say, was away from the sea and in size and social atmosphere reminded me of the town in Pennsylvania, Shillington, that I had grown up in. The house was even the same shape - long and narrow, with a deep backyard. From the room I wrote in, I saw rows of yellow school buses. I was at home in America, all right.

I needed a hook, into 1979. I mean, what can you say? Although the first novel had had a few overheard news items in it, it wasn't really in a conscious way about the 50's. It just was a product of the 50's; it was a helplessly 50's kind of book written by a sort of helplessly 50's guy. The 60's were much more self-conscious, much more conscious of themselves as a decade. The 70's seemed somewhat amorphous.

But we happened to be in Pennsylvania, staying with some friends of my wife's, and it was June, and there was some anxiety about our getting away because there were terrible gas lines all over the state. And my host was so hostly, or else so keen on our departure, that he rose very early in the morning and got in my car and went and waited in a gas line to get me gas to get out of there. So the gas crunch became my hook: running out of gas, which is the first phrase in ''Rabbit Is Rich.'' The general sense of exhaustion, inflation, Jimmy Carter's fainting during one of his trots - all that seemed to add up to a national picture.

The paradox was that although the theme was running out of gas, I was feeling pretty good. And so the book is kind of an upbeat book in spite of itself. It's really a cheerful book, very full, it seems to me insofar as I can be a critic, of itself and its material. I really had to cut it short at the end - it was threatening to go on forever. Tennyson said what he wanted was a novel that would go on forever, but it's not what I want. So I moved briskly to the arrival of Angstrom's granddaughter in his arms; the book is really about his becoming a grandfather, written years before I myself became one. He is rich in a number of ways, and discovers of course that to be rich is just another way of being poor, that your needs expand with your income and the world eventually takes away what it gives.

But it's a big, basically bouncy book that won prizes. Why some books win prizes and others don't is a mystery. In part it was that by this time, I'd been around so long, and was obviously working so hard, that people felt sorry for me and futhermore hoped that if Rabbit and I received a prize we would go away and put an end to this particular episode in American letters. But no, I've felt obliged to produce a fourth!

Updike's career arc as a writer looks a lot like a great baseball player's, such as Greg Maddux, who came up to the big leagues in 1986, peaked in 1994-1995 with two of the best seasons a pitcher ever had, and then slowly reverted to being a journeyman. An athlete gets credit for piling up career totals, such as Maddux's 355 wins, but a writer's career tends to be judged by his peaks, which can be obscured in the short run by the profusion of other books he published before and after.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Unknown said...

I'm very sorry Updike is dead. Sure, it happens to the best. But I can't help thinking that the old pro had more good swing left in him, and that the rise of Obama would have been just the motivation he needed.

He will be missed.

Now I'm going to order THE COUP from the library.

Anonymous said...

I'll go to my grave swearing up and down that Updike was the best American fiction writer of the second half of the 20th century. He was technically better than the overrated Pynchon, more humane and judicious than Bellow, Roth and Mailer, and more flexible than his old nemesis Vidal (whose strength is in his essays). Updike's short stories are generally considered to be better than most of his novels, and they're probably the best place to start. Nevertheless, The Centaur remains my personal favorite novel and one of the few that can move me to tears. Updike wrote about the people in the small towns that once filled this country between the coasts; liberal critics liked to conflate his characters' flaws with their WASPiness (can you imagine mainstream reviewers mentioning in every discussion of Roth's characters how Jewish they are?) but Updike didn't write as an ethnic writer, but an American one, capturing the vices and virtues of the Protestants who were once the majority here and built us from the ground up. Because he wasn't openly liberal--he was fairly conservative on a lot of issues--he was a target for feminists and other assorted peanuts who hated the fact that a Living White Male could just be so damn good yet humble at the same time. I'm lucky to have met him briefly and can attest to his generosity and humility as an individual, despite having several Pulitzers under his belt. To use a cliche he himself never would have used, we're not going to see his like again.

Anonymous said...

Dollmaker is right. I'm not a big fan of any of his novels in particular, but his exquisite style put him far ahead of any of his contemporaries.

Anonymous said...

"The great American novelist has died at 76."

Steve, do you really believe Updike deserves that title over Twain?

James Kabala said...

Anonymous: I don't think Steve's use of the definite article necessarily meant that he regards Updike as "THE great American novelist." A shorter version would be "The novelist is dead."  That doesn't mean he was the only novelist.
Dollmaker: Don't reviewers frequently talk about the Jewishness of Roth's characters?

Anonymous said...

James: Fair question. I was probably unclear, and referring to the critics' explicit correlation of Updike's characters' individual flaws to their ethnicity, which is to say that many critics used the WASPiness of Updike's characters to tar WASPs as a whole. It's hard to find an upper-caste lit review from the 1980's on that doesn't somehow (subtly or not) insult WASP culture by guilt through association with his characters. (And I notice this as a non-WASP.) Whereas critics have been reflexively trained not to see the characters of writers of other ethnicities, be they Jewish, black, Asian, etc as representative of an entire ethnic group. Anyway, on the day of JU's passing, all this seems trivial: he was such a worldly, informed and humane writer, with such a marvelously precise microscope trained on the "American character," that I feel certain his books will long outlast most of his contemporaries'. I'm also confident that long after Pynchon is a pomo footnote interesting only to grad students, stories like "A&P" (eternally anthologized in high school collections) will instill and inspire a love of literature in the public's mind.

Anonymous said...

Some fellow writer once dismissed Updike's innate conservatism as "the only federal program he believes in is the Post Office." And recently Erica Jong decried the sorry lack of major talents in American literature to an Italian magazine. Her first complaint was that Updike and Tom Wolfe were "men of the right". Well, at least she implied they have talent...

Unknown said...

Updike wrote about people like myself. And, he wrote about technicians. I kept waiting for him to write a novel featuring American military men; a totally uncovered genre. Of course he probably did not have much military in his family; but surely neighbors, and he had to do research for "The Coup".

And need I say that on almost every page I have to pause and catch my breath at the realism and beauty and clear-eyed vision of the world.

Anonymous said...

John Updike's passing is sad news indeed... he possessed a truly beautiful mind; he didn't just write well, he wrote wisely