I was dusting bookshelves today and as I went past my row of books by John Updike I had to pull a few off and look into them.
I really liked Updike’s stories and novels. My wife and I used to read the books together every summer for a number of years. I also admired Updike’s three pages per day writing requirement. He really worked at his writing. It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.
I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and he published his second novel, Rabbit, Run. The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.
The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like his “A&P.” I was a high school boy and immediately identified with Updike’s boy working at the checkout counter in an A&P supermarket when three young pretty girls walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically.
In my freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux. a sequel to the first Rabbit book.
I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples novel when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves. Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.
Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.
I heard an interview he did at the time of his fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which chronicles the end of Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry in his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson, and his wife, Janice, and an 1989 America that is a post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize. What interests me in the interview and book is his own thoughts about death. (He died of lung cancer in January 2009.)
I found a video that has John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David was (is?) a teacher and also a writer and I have enjoyed reading his work. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good. It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike if you wanted to be a writer. I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.
John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father. But I think even some of those who are not fans concede that his prose is beautiful, often poetic.
I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog
I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. This “found poem” is about what it means to be dead as seen by teenage David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave. As I said, his prose is so often poetic, that it is easy to hear the sentences as lines in a poem.
A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.
You try to reach them
but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.
As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.