He dared to go it alone
John Updike, 76, died Tuesday from lung cancer. The man wrote novels, nonfiction, literary critiques and magazine articles. He died with all-star statistics, two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards.
Updike balanced on the thin precipice between commercial and critical success, and he did it by being a working author. He was on the short list of authors from the United States who had a real crack at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the bias of the board aside.
Like most prodigious authors, Updike’s output was vast and uneven. (If everything an author puts out is brilliant, then they probably wrote one thing and quit while they were ahead.) Critics occasionally accused him of valuing style over substance, but he tackled subjects—divorce, depression, sex, suburban women dabbling in the arcane—with equal aplomb.
His final novel, “The Widows of Eastwick,” was the sequel to his best-recognized work, the “Witches” from the same place. I say “best recognized” because I have not read all of Updike’s more than 50 books and cannot say it was his best.
He also created Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a character he followed through four books: “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” The Rabbit series garnered a pair of Pulitzers and a National Book Award. It also gave readers an icon, a man incapable of accepting his insignificance or, contrarily, accomplishing anything that mattered.
But when I think Updike, I won’t think “Eastwick” or even “Rabbit.” I’ll think of dinosaurs. In 2007, Updike scribed an article about unusual Mesozoic monsters for “The National Geographic.” He wrote about Mononykus’s smug dependence on a single clawed digit and the ungainly long arms of Deinocheirus, as if it were a high school basketball player.
I’d read Updike before, but I read him because I felt I should read him. I read him with the same compulsion with which we read Melville in high school, in case there might be a test. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy him, but it still felt mandatory.
Reading the article, I felt a kinship with Updike. Sure, Updike will probably win his third Pulitzer before I win my first; but this was a man who lived by the pen, not so far removed from blue-collar typists who must write for their supper. Updike wrote, and kept writing, because that was the best way he had to express himself, the best way he had to understand his surroundings.
I understand that.
So I returned to Updike—his reviews for “The New Yorker,” Angstrom, “The Centaur”—this time for me. I got a late start, so my reading may never catch Updike’s writing, but it will be worth the run.
--Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com
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