18-Sept-Oct-2005
By: 
Leanne Milway



John Updike

John Updike (1932—) mastered the art of capturing the ordinary moments that govern our lives. His chronicles of the everyday speak to the joys, sorrows, and transitions of human existence—and the humdrum forms these experiences often take. His description of a young man pausing on his walk home to wife and child to watch a group of boys play basketball is just suck a moment; it happens every day, across the country. In Rabbit, Run (1960), Updike depicts this trivial moment in exquisite, poetic detail: "Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires." Or, take his snapshot of a checkout boy watching a bikini-clad trio stroll through the local supermarket in the short story A & P (1961): "The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit. ... I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not." A simple observation, a simple scene—yet the boy’s action therein transforms his life.

With more than 60 novels and collections of short stories, poetry, and criticism to his name, Updike is one of America’s great writers. In much of his work, he focuses on the ordinary, middle-class man who often brews with dissatisfaction, jitters with lust, and wants more out of life. His protagonists are pensive and moody and live in small towns in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. Just look at the unhappy suburbanites in Couples (1968), the anguished Jewish writer Bech in Bech (1970), and Hamlet’s adulterous uncle in Gertrude and Claudius (2000). All of them doggedly search for more … more sex, more money, more praise, and more meaning in life—quests that usually elude them.

Harry Angstrom is Updike’s most famous character, whose stifling sense of entrapment is based on Updike’s own rapid trajectory from student to family man. "Basically it’s true that my own life has been my chief window for life in America," Updike admits, "beginning with my childhood and the conflicts, the struggles, the strains that I felt in my own family" (Academy of Achievement interview, 6/12/04). Born March 18, 1932, John Hoyer Updike spent the first 13 years of his life in Shillington, Pennsylvania before moving to an 80-acre family farm nearby. In 1950 he won an academic scholarship to Harvard, where he wrote and drew for the Harvard Lampoon. Within four years, he married, had kids, and had a job writing "Talk of the Town" columns for The New Yorker. He was 27. The young author latched on to "a certain fright and dodginess within myself," he explained to the National Book Foundation. "This kind of man who won’t hold still, who won’t make a commitment, who won’t quite pull his load in society, became Harry Angstrom." The resulting angry and imperfect man, first introduced in Rabbit, Run, earned his creator many honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

The Rabbit books explore a major theme that haunts all of Updike’s work: the desire to find meaning beyond the daily grind. Updike "is our unchallenged master at evoking the heroic void of ordinary life," Curt Suplee wrote in the Washington Post. "With heart-clutching clarity, he transmutes the stubborn banality of middle-class existence into tableaux that shiver with the hint of spiritual meaning."

Man, wife, home, children, work: for almost half a century, Updike has explored the daily concerns of our national psyche, using his own life as a guide. "Fiction," he told the Washington Post, "is part confession, part lie" (5/5/04). Nowhere is this truer than in Updike’s work.

"People may have liked me better if I had written less."

"You can’t really write to please critics, because you’re not going to please them, probably, even if you try to write for them," Updike told Salon.com in 1996. He, of course, knew what he was talking about. His novels have rarely broken into the bestseller list, and many of them—especially his more recent titles—have garnered very mixed reviews. Critics argue that he overwrites the sex scenes. He creates unlikable characters. He’s been telling the same story, with minor variations, for 40 years. Most importantly, some would say that his novels have no point, a criticism the author finds highly flawed. "My books are all meant to be moral debates with the reader," he told BBC, "and if they seem pointless … it’s because the reader has not been engaged in the debate. The question is usually, ‘what is a good man?’ or ‘what is goodness …’" (6/19/69). So, besides fetishizing sex and introducing distasteful protagonists who learn questionable lessons from their lives, he’s also misunderstood.

Nearly all critics and readers, however, agree on one point: He is an amazing prose stylist. Updike, also an accomplished poet, brings sensuous, inspired turns of phrase to the most mundane actions. Instead of writing violent battle sequences or pages of straight dialogue, he describes the exact look on a woman’s face upon waking. "There is a great deal to be said about almost anything," he told Life magazine. "My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules." In other words, John Updike writes beautifully about nothing much, and that is exactly what makes it art.

Major Works

Rabbit, Run (1960)

UPD-RabbitRun.epsUpdike’s second novel loudly announced the arrival of a distinct voice in American fiction. At 28, he had already published a book of poetry and written a novel—The Poorhouse Fair (1959)—that had been a finalist for the National Book Award. Deciding to devote himself to writing full-time, the young author quit working for The New Yorker and moved his family to a small town in Massachusetts. He then began pouring out short stories about the modern suburban man. Rabbit, Run is the first in a four-book cycle chronicling an average middle-class existence. At the time of its publication, Knopf feared a possible lawsuit for obscenity, but the novel sold over 2.5 million copies.

The Story: Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, 26, was once a high school basketball star. Now he’s married with kids and works for his father-in-law in a used car lot. Unfulfilled, uncertain, and bored, one night Rabbit goes out for cigarettes and doesn’t come back. He deserts his alcoholic wife, argues with his minister, and takes a mistress.

"On one level Rabbit, Run is a grotesque allegory of American life, with its myth of happiness and success, its dangerous innocence and crippling antagonism between value and fact. But much more significantly it is a minor epic of the spirit thirsting for room to discover and be itself." Richard Gilman, Commonweal, 10/28/60

"Under the high-powered magnification and intense imagery of Updike’s style, Rabbit’s floundering in the deadly flypaper of his life has all the force and brilliance of an hallucination." Milton Rugoff, New York Herald Tribune Book Review, 11/6/60

"Author Updike tells his depressing and frequently sordid story with a true novelist’s power. His too-explicit sexual scenes are often in the worst of taste, but his set pieces … show some of the surest writing in years." Time, 11/7/60

The Bottom Line: Updike encapsulates the American dream in Rabbit, in all his lazy, ignorant, and sexist glory. A true classic.

Couples (1968)

UPD-Couples.epsBy his early 30s, Updike had taught creative writing at Harvard (he didn’t enjoy it), taken home his first National Book Award for The Centaur, and become the youngest member ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. People noticed Updike’s talent. But his fifth novel, with its lyrically detailed sexual trysts, became a sensation.

"The book is, of course, not about sex as such," Updike explained in a 1969 BBC interview. "It’s about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left." That is, of course, why Couples stayed on best-seller lists for 36 weeks. It also earned Updike his first cover of Time magazine, under the headline "The Adulterous Society." Does Updike know something the rest of us don’t? He didn’t say. A few years later, he divorced his wife of 20 years, Mary Pennington, and married Martha Bernhard.

The Story: Piet’s wife Angela is disinterested in sex, at least with him, so his carnal appetite leads him astray. They meet Ken and Foxy, a new couple in town. The book follows 10 sex-obsessed couples, all friends who frequently party together, as they navigate the perils of adultery in a small Boston suburb.

"Some readers will gag with disgust at the excruciatingly detailed varieties of sexual play … this novel will cause controversy, but because it so correctly and dramatically diagnoses the moral disease which is eating at the soft vitals of the American middle class, it should quickly assume the status of a major novel." R.F. Cayton, Library Journal, 3/15/68

"Updike’s weakness is not too much beauty but too much precision; he tells you more than you want to know, in words as arcane and exact as old legal language." Wilfrid Sheed, New York Times Book Review, 4/7/68

"Updike’s style can carry the burden of details with which the book is filled. He uses even the four-letter words with distinction." Granville Hicks, Saturday Review, 4/6/68

The Bottom Line: Updike gives no-holds-barred sexuality a prominent place in literature.

Rabbit is Rich (1981)

Award Star Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle award

UPD-RabbitRich.epsRabbit Redux (1971), the second installment of the Rabbit series, ended on a tragic note and alienated both critics and readers. In this sequel, the Vietnam War has ended and Rabbit prospers. With his 10th novel, Updike sailed to the top of everyone’s best-of list.

The Story: At 46, Harry Angstrom is content and successful, managing his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership during the 1970s oil crisis. His son Nelson, however, has inherited his father’s irresponsible attitude toward life. Nelson drops out of college, begs for a job at the dealership, and gets a girl pregnant.

"Updike has in this book caught both the flotsam and the ethos of 1979. … There is no novelist more tenderly in love with his characters. … [He] has always taken his own readers’ breath away by showing small instants of how people really live. No one since Joyce himself has made such a gorgeous marriage of dailiness and poetry." Thomas Mallon, Nation Review, 11/13/81

"What the New World was to Renaissance cartographers, sex is to Updike. … A brilliant book, this, and though a chastening one, what we deserve." Alfred Kazin, New York Review of Books, 11/19/81

"… a superlative comic novel that is also an American romance." Paul Gray, Time, 10/5/81

The Bottom Line: Rabbit has achieved the American dream of money, but now crushing father-and-son conflicts haunt him. A bleak story, infused with hope and truth.

Rabbit at Rest (1990)

Award Star Pulitzer Prize; National Book Critics Circle Award

UPD-RabbitRest.epsAs with all the Harry Angstrom books, current events play a crucial role in the plot. Here, the decline of the country during Ronald Reagan’s final years coincides with Rabbit’s physical decay. Overall, critics saw Updike’s later work as increasingly bleak and obsessed with aging, but his 14th novel allowed for a sliver of hope in the love Rabbit showers on his grandchildren.

The Story: Depressed, grossly overweight, and living in Florida, Rabbit comes out of retirement at 55 to work at the car dealership while his son struggles with a cocaine addiction. Rabbit’s first heart attack is just around the corner.

"[This novel] is far more upbeat than its subject matter would seem to warrant. And in the bargain it manages to be both poignant and excruciatingly funny. … This novel completes the most authoritative and most magical portrait yet written of the past four decades of American life." Paul Gray, Time, 10/15/90

"Rabbit’s son is as empty, but as prettily describable, as Rabbit. … The endless verbal cleverness of Updike can run unimpeded by the weights of moral insight or of judgment." Garry Willis, New York Review of Books, 10/25/90

"Like Rabbit, this novel would have profited by losing weight. … It’s been a grand trip, and this finale is one of Updike’s best books." Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek, 10/1/90

The Bottom Line: With the country riddled with debt and AIDS, Rabbit faces his own mortality. After four decades, this is the final episode of an incredibly average, but oh-so-extraordinary, American life.

In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996)

UPD-BeautyLilies.epsThis sprawling novel allowed Updike to put a decidedly American spin on one family’s ever-morphing view of spirituality. Just as sex gave the people in Couples liberation, here his characters turn to film, with its mystery of darkness and light, as a new religion.

The Story: Late in his career, the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot abruptly loses faith in God. He resigns from his congregation in 1910, sets out selling encyclopedias door to door, and dedicates himself to finding himself—and perhaps salvation—at the movies. The novel traces how Clarence’s about-face reverberates through the next three generations of his family.

"This is … a deeply disenchanted novel: disenchanted with America, religion, the movies. It is not, however, a piece of dismayed authorial valetudinarianism, but rather a novel of accumulated wisdom, with Mr. Updike in full control of his subtle, crafty and incessantly observing art." Julian Barnes, The New York Times Book Review, 1/28/96

"In the Beauty of the Lilies succeeds when the sensuality of Updike’s prose matches the sensitivity of his characters, and creates an interior world thick with feeling and experience. The novel falters when he tries to plot those experiences on the broad canvas of American history." A.O. Scott, Nation, 2/12/96

"Updike’s genius, his place beside Hawthorne and Nabokov have never been more assured, or chilling." George Steiner, The New Yorker, 3/11/96

The Bottom Line: Updike’s only multi-generational epic displays impressive historical detail and sweeping American themes. Despite minor flaws, Lilies is a truly enjoyable journey.