Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

The nation and, to some degree, the world seems to be losing members of a novel-writing "generation" that first found a big readership in the 1950s and 1960s: Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, William Styron, Norman Mailer, and now John Updike (to name a few).

Updike was an important figure in my own reading-life because I picked up Rabbit, Run when I was a sophomore in high school, read it, liked it, and understood most of it. I liked the character and, young as I was, I understood the character. I was in high school, with classmates who were local athletic stars who were, in some cases, being set up for disappointment. Perhaps what I responded well to in that novel and other writing by Updike more than anything was its imagery. In terms of plotting, characterization, and moving things along, Updike was traditional. He knew how to construct and pace a novel. But in another way, he was a "poetic" novelist who had a great eye for imagery for conveying that imagery powerfully.

Later I read Couples, the other Rabbit books, story collections (like Pigeon Feathers), and even Midpoint, a book of poems that was more light verse than not. Later still I lost interest in Updike's writing not so much because I lost interest in his particular characters so much as I lost interest in the type of characters and situations he was writing about. I didn't find their stories especially urgent. I found what James Baldwin was writing about (to cite just one example) more pressing.

When Updike ventured beyond the world he knew well--semi-rural and suburban middle-America; Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York--his powers waned. The Coup is, in my opinion, not a good novel. It's the kind of material Gore Vidal and John Le Carre and Martin Amis can handle better. But so what? It was interesting to see what Updike would do with such material.

Even later, I came to regard Updike as a kind of insider who had been taken under the wing of The New Yorker early on and who was well connected, as it were. That's probably not entirely fair because he was an extremely hard-working writer. Maybe he had an inside track, but he also ran hard. He just kept at it. By contrast, Heller and Styron seem unproductive, or less productive, at least.

But I'll always remember reading that relatively thin paperback, Rabbit, Run, in the sun or in my room, getting myself through the novel on my own, and loving it. I knew it was good writing. It made me want to keep reading. And reading. And writing.
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