America has lost a literary icon, a quiet observer of the sad and sadly spiritual human condition or, if you prefer, a tired writer of small topics whose prose oozed with oversexed maleness and thinly veiled mysongeny. For me, John Updike was more the former than the later, and worthy of my devotion; thus, I have lost one of the few people I have ever considered a hero (such as it was). But it isn’t really true that either I or America has lost John Updike. He left us with more than two dozen novels, as well as copious short stories, deep criticism of life, literature, and art, and poetry that ranges from the frivolous to the pensive to the profane. The Atlantic’s brief obit sums it up best: “It’s customary to say that someone will be missed. In Updike’s case it’s more important that he will be remembered.”
The line in my title is, and likely will always be, the first line of Updike’s prose that anyone reads. It starts “A&P,” a short story about a young man working in a supermarket. The first line I read? The far less memorable “Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a blackboard bolted to it.” Rabbit, Run blew me away, in some respects even more than Catcher in the Rye did. To this day I don’t quite understand why that was the case. Perhaps I understood, even then, that Catcher in the Rye was about a person and a life I would never be a part of but Rabbit, Run could easily describe the person I (and in fact most of my peers) would become.
That spring in 1986 I became a fan. By the end of the summer I had read a number of his novels and before I graduated from high school I began collecting first editions of his work. Sometimes I would look at my collection and wonder if it was worth the money I put in to it. After all, it is about reading the words, not possessing them in some arbitrary format. Sometimes I joked that when he died I’d be able to cash it in. Now that he’s gone I find myself regretting that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to complete my collection. Doing so now may be nearly impossible.
I came dangerously close, in college, to becoming a scholar of Updike. Thankfully my academic advisor at the time convinced me that I should write my senior thesis on some obscure English poet rather than Updike. This freed me to continue reveling in his prose, to be able to discuss it’s deeper meaning if I wanted, or just tell people that I really liked it, without having to ascribe more to it than an amused smile.
As time has gone on, I’ve kept up with his new work and tried my best to go back and read the few bits and pieces–criticism mostly–that I’ve missed. Until my son was born, I would frequently have his new books read within a day or two of release. One of my small, prideful moments came when I realized I’d written the first Amazon.com customer review for Seek My Face (2002). Sadly, it took me far longer to read his last novel, Widows of Eastwick.
When Updike was in Sacramento last November, he spoke in terms of “wrapping things up.” He described writing a sequel to Witches of Eastwick as a way of tidying as he approached the end. Given that he died of lung cancer, it makes me wonder if he had already been diagnosed by the time he was here. I read in one story today that during his November tour of the west coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento [!], and Seattle) he had “walking pneumonia,” but that he had chosen to continue because people had already bought tickets. In any case, I feel fortunate to have seen him.
A long time ago, a magazine writer criticized Updike for being the kind of writer who steps outside his door, looks around for a few minutes, and writes. In other words, he wrote from a very limited world view. That may be the case, but I often think that Updike in those few minutes of observation was able to catch aspects of human nature that most of us never see or deny exist. Despite the sad state of his characters, Updike’s work also contained a fair bit of wonder of the simple fact of being alive.
Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.