Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike at Rest

John Updike passed away today. I deeply grieve. I’ve read most of his works, particularly his novels, except his most recent one, The Widows of Eastwick. Ironically, I just finished his penultimate novel, Terrorist, which I mentioned in my last entry.

Updike has been my companion since I began to read his work, starting with Rabbit, Run soon after it was published in 1960. The image of the young high school basketball star, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, going up for a jump shot, “his hands like wild birds” as I recall Updike’s description, is indelibly etched in my mind. I have followed Rabbit through cycles of life that seem to mirror mine. Those novels Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit At Rest were each published at the beginning of a new decade (as well as his briefer Rabbit Remembered published at the beginning of this decade). Each captures the Zeitgeist of those moments in time. Updike had an ear for language, the mores of the American suburbs, and wrote with an erudition befitting his Harvard education.

Although his sexually charged Couples published in 1968 might have put him in the mainstream of widely read contemporary American writers, I love some of his lesser-known works such as Roger’s Version and Toward the End of Time.

But I was constantly drawn to Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom who was about ten years older than I. When I read Rabbit At Rest I wondered whether there would be a similar fate, “escaping” to Florida, only to become lazy, flabby, and depressed. As it turns out, I did follow Harry to the sunshine state, and about ten years after him, but I would like to think that is the only similarity. After all, I always had Updike to keep me company, to help keep me engaged.

Updike increasingly ruminated about death in his later works, as one is prone to do as one ages: an acceptance that it happens to all of us – “no one gets out alive” – as we flippantly say. It’s the singular part we must play in this birth/death comic tragedy that we wonder about. I found myself looking for clues of Updike’s own feelings in his recent literature.

From Terrorist comes one of Updike’s more poignant passages, describing the thoughts of Jack Levy (the novel’s aging high school guidance counselor) in the dark of the early morning: …Jack has personal misery, misery that he “owns,” as people say now – the heaviness of the day to come, the day that will dawn through all this dark. As he lies there awake, fear and loathing squirm inside him like the components of a bad restaurant meal – twice as much food as you want, the way they serve it now. Dread slams shut the door back into sleep, an awareness, deepening each day, that all that is left on Earth for his body to do is to ready itself for death. He has done his courting and mating; he has fathered a child, he has worked to feed that child, little sensitive Mark with his shy cloudy eyes and slippery lower lip, and to furnish him with all the tawdry junk the culture of the time insisted he possess, to blend in with his peers. Now Jack Levy’s sole remaining task is to die and thus contribute a little space, a little breathing room, to this overburdened planet. The task hangs in the air just above his insomniac face like a cobweb with a motionless spider in the center.”

What great writing. Just to key these words makes me shudder with the knowledge that there will be no future Updike novels. We have lost a truly great American writer and, for me, a heartfelt companion..