Showing posts with label John Updike. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Updike. Show all posts

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Two Unlikely Companion Pieces

I just read my first illustrated book, an idiosyncratic history of New York City, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York by Julia Wertz.  The genre is “comics,” but the New York Times gave it such a glowing review, and since my love of NYC – where I grew up and lived as a young adult --- is so deep, I couldn’t resist owning this fetching coffee table book.  It’s easy to read and a candy feast for the eyes for an old New Yorker, although as a kid I grew up in Queens, but that still counts!

Obviously, it can’t be a comprehensive history.  Wertz takes bits and pieces of the city’s history – the ones that particularly appeal to her -- and weaves them together in a graphic time machine of sorts, frequently juxtaposing the “then” and “now” scenes.  Just a glance at the “Table of Contents” underscores the eclectic nature of the history:

She tends to focus on those aspects that are not touristy.  It reaches across generations.  She’s young enough to be my daughter or perhaps even granddaughter.  As she is not a New Yorker by birth, and no longer lives there, she sees the city in a way a native New Yorker might not, in the way that I do.  I took all those sites for granted and it makes more of an impression in retrospect than it did then.

I enjoyed her journey through parts of NYC I’ve known and other parts I did not know.  Also I appreciated her quirky selection of topics such as the origins and “formula” for the “egg cream” which took me back to my childhood at a local luncheonette in Richmond Hill, Queens, 107th Street and Jamaica Avenue, called Freers.

In fact, if there is one disappointment in the book, it is that she tends to give short shrift to Queens, as opposed to Brooklyn where she lived in Greenpoint during her NY years.  Missing are iconic scenes of my youth and I think of the confluence of Myrtle, Hillside, and Jamaica Avenues as ground zero where Jahn’s, the RKO Keiths, and the Triangle Hofbrau still live large in my memory!.  All gone now.

Those figured prominently in my teenage years whereas during grammar school days other beloved places were in South Richmond Hill, 107th St near Atlantic Avenue.  One of the first Carvel’s was there or some days we’d bike over to Jamaica, Queens where there was a Wonder Bread factory where workers would give us hot bread from their oven.  There was also a slaughter house not too far away and we’d peer through knotholes to see chickens dancing around without their heads before we were chased away.  Also on Atlantic was a park on 106th St. where we played stickball, punch ball, handball, any kind of game you could play with a Spaldeen.

Along Jamaica Avenue I remember the Gebhardts bakery off of 111th street whose crumb cake was divine.  Also there was a fish store around 112th where they also cooked greasy French fries and served them wrapped in newspaper.  We got our school supplies from Lipchitz or Woolworths.  Right near Lipchitz was the Richmond Hill Savings bank where my mother encouraged me to open an account to save my pennies, and I always felt I was entering a church when I went there with my junior savings account.

Overhead was the Jamaica Avenue El which on rare occasions was our escape into NYC, a great adventure as a kid, but I usually took it early Sat morning to go to the Van Wyck Lanes where I could bowl a few games for 15 cents each if I got there before 9.00 am with my own ball (I once bowled a 227). 

We’d play ball until dark, a round sewer top for home plate, or stoop ball, eat dinner and then wait for the ring of the Bungalow Bar Man, begging our parents for a 10 cent chocolate pop.  The games we played.  Anything to stay out of the house.  Steal the bacon, Ringolevio, yo-yo duels, card games like war, flipping baseball cards, dodge ball and the list goes on.

Forest Park was a draw, with a carousel and later in my teenage years, a walk along the railroad tracks with friends, putting pennies on the rail and then running back to see them after a freight train had passed.  The Park was also a great place to build a secret fort.  Or for sledding.  And for playing baseball at Victory Field.

On Halloween we would get apples, popcorn or crackerjacks, just take a handful, no need to worry back then that there would be a razor blade in the apple or the popcorn poisoned.  And on Thanksgiving our parents would blacken our faces with burnt cork, dressing us as bums, and we would go around the neighborhood asking "anything for Thanksgiving?"  I think we normally received a few pennies.  Into the bank account!

We got around on our Schwinn bikes, clothes-pinning playing cards to the wheel frames so the spokes would make a racket.  As teenagers we sought out older kids to cruise Queens Blvd (preferably in a 55’ Ford such as this one I saw recently at an antique car show – 

strange to be looking at “antiques” that were just part of my life) or hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach where we would work hard to get a tan, but usually left with a blistering sunburn (my Dermatologist now thanks me for my stupidity).  Also part of our teenage years was spent at the Hillside Rollerdrome Skating Rink on Metropolitan Avenue.

I could go on and on.  But I see I am digressing into reveries, none of which I could criticize our author, Julia Wertz, for not including in her “unconventional history.” It would have been nice though to include the institution that was Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor!  I’m also sorry she failed to carrry the Brooklyn Paramount in her illustrations of iconic NY theaters, which as you can see here is now one of the gymnasiums belonging to LIU. 

Her writing this history has naturally given rise to these memories and her work is a “must have” for an incurable (albeit former) New Yorker.  Plus there are a number of scenes which struck home in the book, but I’ll mention only a few.  The first is her illustration of Max’s Kansas City, a joint, restaurant, theatre which I used to go to with other colleagues on special occasions from the publishing company I worked for in the mid 1960s.  We always had to have one of their iconic Bloody Mary’s.  Sometimes they would have an experimental theater production on the second floor, the kind you’d see at CafĂ© La MaMa in the East Village. 

But the illustration that really hit home is coincidentally both on the cover and at the end of the book, a stroll down the Bowery.  I kept looking at it and said I know this illustration for some reason.  Well, when researching the history of my family photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, I found the building my great grandfather and great uncle bought in 1866 to begin a business which would survive 120 years in NYC.  That building was 142 Bowery and there it was in Wertz’s book as well as her selection for the cover.  Here’s her illustration and a picture of it today.  So, I found that sort of thrilling.

She’s also irreverent, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but very respectfully.  She’s downright funny, as this illustration of “subway etiquette” illustrates:

As well as her quip about “micro-living” this, as she points out, is a trumped up idea of justifying astronomical rental fees for small spaces: 

She can also be very philosophical as one illustration has her on one of her “long city walks” saying to a friend, “I’m, perpetually fantasizing about a time I never experienced, and imagining a life I’ll never live.”  I might know a little more about the former but we’re in the same boat regarding the latter.

Most of all, I am regretful that I didn’t take more careful notice of everything when I was roaming NYC, having lived in Queens, Brooklyn (Park Slope and Downtown), the East Village (only briefly with a friend), and then the upper West Side.  See this entry for fuller information on that.  And, not only regretful because of that, but my encroaching old age makes only an occasional return to the city possible now, never to live there again.

While I was reading and enjoying Wertz’s “comic” table top book, I was also engrossed in another work by a New Yorker, the great writer, particularly known for his professional writing on baseball, Roger Angell.  But he is so much more than a baseball writer, and I’m closer in age to him (he’s turning 98 and still writing!) than I am to Julia Wertz.  They actually have The New Yorker magazine in common, Wertz contributing cartoons and Angell a long, long established writer for them.

This Old Man: All in Pieces is a potpourri of memories, the consequences of what it means to be the last man standing, the losses, and homage to NYC.  I feel that I’m right behind him on the journey,  the realization that my much operated on body is moving into the category of “this old man” as well;  I feel it.

The title of the collection is derived from his essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 2013.  It is a must read and it gives one an appreciation of his writing talents, so effortless and natural. 

It includes “farewells, letters, and tributes” to those he has known , “our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight.  I would like to think of mine as fellow voyagers…Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”

His tribute, “Over the Wall “ to his late wife, Carol, written only months after her death starts with Carol doesn't know that President Obama won reelection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn't know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn't know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn't know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment. Carol died early last April….

What the dead don't know piles up, though we don't notice it at first. They don't know how we're getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don't know that we don't want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don't want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they're in a hurry, too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election…..

There are scores of writers he worked with and befriended, one in particular, John Updike, who comes up again and again in these essays, bringing the writer to life with personal quips.  He also recognizes the genius of Updike’s writing:   
Updike's writing is light and springy, the tone unforced; often happiness is almost in view, despite age or disappointments. He is not mawkish or insistently gloomy. Death is frequently mentioned but for the time being is postponed. Time itself is bendable in these stories; the characters are aware of themselves at many stages. This is Updike country: intelligent and Eastern, mostly Protestant, more or less moneyed.

Angell relates an anecdote regarding how Updike accidentally got to see and write about Ted Williams’ final at bat of his career at Fenway Park, hitting a home run.  Updike was in the area to meet a woman at her place on Beacon Hill and was stood him up!  So he made his way to Fenway and was there to witness the consecrated moment and famously wrote about it in a piece for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”  Here is the confluence of literature and baseball, a legend elevated into a literary masterpiece:

Fisher threw [a] third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. [Center fielder Jackie} Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished. Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs-hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

In accepting the J.G, Taylor Spink Award at the American Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Angell acknowledged his debt to baseball:

My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heart-breakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime indeed. Fans know about this too. Nowadays we have all sports available, every sport all day long, but we're hanging on to this game of outs, knowing how lucky we are.

Roger, I know what you mean!  In this crazy world baseball remains essentially unchanged except for the amusement park nature of many of today’s fields.  I liked it more in the days of no mascots, flashing scoreboards, fireworks, enclosed stadiums, constant “music.”  Let ‘em play ball!

Tying these two books together may be a stretch, but there is also Roger Angell the inveterate New Yorker.  In a letter to Tom Beller who was researching a book about J.D. Salinger, Angell imagines what Madison Avenue was like when he probably passed “Jerry” as he refers to J.D., both unaware of the other….

I'm pretty sure that Jerry Salinger would have walked toward Madison, not Lex, in search of that pack of cigarettes. He could have tried at the little Schmidt's Drugstore, two doors north of 91st Street on the NE corner of Park, but probably that was still a pure drugstore. It had one of the pharmacist's vases of mauve water hanging in the window…. Madison then was nothing like Madison now. The gentrification began in the 1980s, I believe. It was a businesslike avenue before that, and in Jerry's time, with two- way trolley tracks in the middle. All traffic was two-way. It had newsstands, a Gristede's (on the NE corner of 92nd); a liquor store or two; a plumber's store, with a bathtub in the window (mid 91st-92nd, on the east side of the avenue); a florist's (J. D. Flessas, on the SW corner of 91st); numerous drugstores (including Cantor's on NE or SE corner of Mad and 93rd, depending on which year we're talking about, and, maybe a bit earlier, a nearby Liggett's); plus shoeshine and shoe repair shops, hardware stores (probably Feldman's, even then), etc., etc. The Hotel Wales was already there, east side of the avenue between 92nd and 93rd, but much seedier then.

Lexington was much the same, also with trolleys-the trolley cars on the two lines were not identical in appearance-and with the same stores, maybe more groceries or butcher shops, but all of them cheaper and with a slightly less affluent clientele. More laundries; more of those basement ice, coal & wood places. Maybe some deli's but they weren't called deli's then. Lexington and I think 93rd had a Lucky Lindy coffee shop. But neither of the two avenues felt affluent; they were useful. Almost all the buildings along them were four-story brownstones. Madison, as you noted, was on the same geographical level as Park; Lex was downhill from Park. There was some construction going on in these blocks all through this time, depression or no depression.

Salinger and the younger me probably passed each other more than once on the street back then, all unknowing. We each knew that the wind was from the east on gray mornings when we woke up with the smell of hops in the air, blown from the huge Ruppert's Brewery, which lay east of Third and north from 90th Street.

Two entirely different generations, but dealing with life in the Big Apple, then and now.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rabbit at Rest -- Art as Life Itself

For years I’ve had a copy of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest sitting on the small bookshelf of our boat, where we have spent a part of the summer for each of the last eighteen years.  Each stay grows a little shorter as we age.  Perhaps that is because the boat seems to get smaller but the truth is it’s just more difficult. Boating demands strength and agility and a touch of fearlessness, all of which we had in abundance when we first started to boat on the Long Island Sound almost forty years ago, visiting most ports from Norwalk, CT to Nantucket, with yearly stopovers at Block Island.  Our stays now are mostly at the home port dock, but fortunately we are far out into the Norwalk River so it’s almost like being at a quiet mooring, with just more creature comforts when needed, like air conditioning. But occasionally we go out to the Norwalk Islands where we still have a mooring, especially on a fine day like this, leaving our home port…

I’m not sure why I kept this duplicate copy of what I consider to be Updike’s finest novel, Rabbit at Rest, on the boat, but now I know, having picked it up again.  I’m steeped in nostalgia. When I first read it I felt I was looking into my future.  Now I'm looking into my past. No one is a better social historian than Updike, the novelist. I miss him so much.

Simply put, Updike peers into the abyss of death in this novel.  It hangs heavily in some way on every page and having gone through some of the same experiences with angioplasties and more, I closely identify.  He’s now a snowbird in this novel, 6 months in Florida and 6 months in his familiar Pennsylvania environs. Rabbit (Harry Angstrom) has let himself go, however.  His little exercise is golfing but even that goes by the wayside.  On the other hand he is addicted to fast food, salt, you name the poison.   “Harry remorsefully feels the bulk, 230 pounds the kindest scales say, that has enwrapped him at the age of 55 like a set of blankets the decades have brought one by one. His doctor down here keeps telling him to cut out the beer and munchies and each night…he vows to but in the sunshine of the next day he’s hungry again, for anything salty and easy to chew.  What did his old basketball couch…tell him toward the end of his life, about how when you get old you eat and eat and it’s never the right food?  Sometimes Rabbit’s spirit feels as if it might faint from lugging all this body around.”

This last sentence really gets to the heart of the novel.  It makes me wonder whether Updike was unconsciously elaborating on the great Delmore Schwartz poem, The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, especially the lines:

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,  
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,  
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,  
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,  
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope  
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.  
—The strutting show-off is terrified,  
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,  
Trembles to think that his quivering meat  
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

With that as the essential theme, nothing escapes the granular examination of Updike the social historian, the sterility of Florida life, the inherent difficulty of the father – son relationship (poor Nelson becomes hooked on drugs, always having to live in the larger than life shadow of his father, and leads the family into financial crisis), the political back drop of the time – Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the cupidity of corporate America, driving real industry overseas and becoming a nation of financial engineering.  In fact, so much of the novel stands up to today’s world and one can see the foreshadowing of the Age of Trump.  There is even a swipe at Trump on the front page of Rabbit’s local Florida paper of the late 80s, a picture of Trump with the headline (Male call: the year’s hottest). One would have to wonder what Updiike would have written with the last few years as political fodder.

Rabbit maintains a little garden at his house in Pennsylvania, but he’s also planted the seeds of what his family has become, his wife Janice yearning for a life of her own as a real estate broker, his son Nelson running their car dealership into the ground with debts to finance his cocaine habit, his daughter in law, Pru, hanging onto a loveless marriage, his two grandchildren looking to their grandpa for love and guidance, and Rabbit like a deer caught in the headlights.  “Family life with children, is something out of his past, that he has not been sorry to leave behind; it was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invade from underneath with leaves so similar and tendrils so tightly entwining it gives the gardener a headache in the sun to try to separate bad growth from good.  Anyway he basically had but the one child, Nelson, one lousy child.”

But that is not the only thing that is entwined, being strangled; it’s his heart and the American soul. “As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart”  “With [his golf partners], he’s a big Swede, they call him Angstrom, a comical pet gentile, a big pale uncircumcised hunk of the American dream.”   And when he finally has a heart attack on a Gulf of Mexico beach, “he lay helpless and jellyfishlike under a sky of red, of being in the hands of others, of being the blind, pained, focal point of a world of concern and expertise, at some depth was a coming back home, after a life of ill-advised journeying.  Sinking, he perceived the world around him as gaseous and rising, the grave and affectionate faces of paramedics and doctors and nurses released by his emergency like a cloud of holiday balloons.”

He has an angioplasty when he should have had a bypass, but he doesn’t want anything done in Florida instead returning to his home soil of Pennsylvania.  “Harry always forgets, what is so hard to picture in flat Florida, the speckled busyness, the antic jammed architecture, the distant blue hilliness forcing in the foreground the gabled houses to climb and cling on the high sides of streets, the spiky retaining walls and sharp slopes….”  But home there are problems, family problems, money problems, leading to marital discord, and Rabbit on the run again, but to where, to Florida, bringing his compromised heart, and his focus more and more on death. “It has always…interested him, that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves…”

And yet, on the lonely drive down I95, one that I’ve done scores of times myself, Updike’s penchant for social commentary and his ear for dialogue dominates.  Nearing the Florida border Rabbit turns to a man one empty stool away from the counter of a rest stop restaurant, asking:

“’About how many more hours is it to the Florida line?’  He lets his Pennsylvania accent drag a little extra, hoping to pass.

‘Four’ the man answers with a smile. ‘I just came from there. Where you headin’ for in Florida?’

‘Way the other end.  Deleon.  My wife and I have a condo there, I’m driving down alone, she’ll be following later.’

The man keeps smiling, smiling and chewing. ‘I know Deleon.  Nice old town.’

Rabbit has never noticed much that is old about it.  ‘From our balcony we used to have a look at the sea but they built it up.’

‘Lot of building on the Gulf side now, the Atlantic side pretty well full. Began my day in Sarasota.’

‘Really? That’s a long way to come.’

‘That’s why I’m makin’ such a pig of myself.  Hadn’t eaten more than a candy bar since five o’clock this morning.  After a while you got to stop, you begin to see things.’

‘What sort of things?’

‘The stretch I just came over, lot of patchy ground fog, it gets to you.  Just coffee gets to your stomach.’  This man has a truly nice way of smiling and chewing and talking all at once.  His mouth is wide but lipless, like a Muppet’s  He has set his truck driver’s cap, with a bill and a mesh panel in the back, beside his plate; his good head of gray hair, slightly wavy like a rich man’s is permanently dented by the edge of the cap.

‘You driving one of those big trucks? I don’t know how you guys do it. How far you goin’?’

All the salad on the plate has vanished and the smile has broadened, ‘Boston.’

‘Boston! All the way?’ Rabbit has never been to Boston,  to him it is the end of the world, tucked up in under Maine.  People living that far north are as fantastic to him as Eskimos.’
There is more to the dialogue than that but it exhibits Updike’s keen ear for ordinary talk.  I could have had the same conversation as that (although Boston is not fantastic to me in the same way).

Arriving in Florida, without his wife, who is really not following him, he is alone, with his failing heart and his dimming dreams, the heavy bear that goes with him, dragging him down, down.  Rabbit at Rest.  Brilliant, one of the best novels of the late 20th century along with Roth’s American Pastoral.

Not having Updike’s decade by decade commentary of the Rabbit series feels like the same galactic void from his sentence:  “The stark plummy stars press down and the depth of the galactic void for an instant makes you feel suspended upside down.” My world is upside down without him.

“We are each of us like our little blue planet, hung in black space, upheld by nothing but our mutual reassurances, our loving ties.” –


Friday, October 24, 2014

Three for the Road

Some ostensibly very different works of fiction are discussed  here, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, John Updike’s The Maples, and The Portable Library of Jack Kerouac.  But they are tied together in some ways, particularly as I read them somewhat concurrently over the last month or two -- mostly during our trips to Alaska and Seattle -- and each in its own way has struck a chord in me.

After reading McEwan’s Saturday which I thoroughly enjoyed, everything taking place in one day (Saturday, naturally), I read his Solar -- a good story but not in the same league as Saturday.   I had never read Atonement, his highly praised and ultimately filmed novel, something I must get to doing.  I was looking for something a little lighter from McEwan for our recent trip to Alaska and Seattle, and I stumbled upon his Sweet Tooth, a mystery and a love story, and written from a woman’s first person point of view.  Much in the novel is about writing itself, a novel within a novel with detailed outlines for some short stories as well, all fitting together like a literary jig saw puzzle.

It takes place during the paranoid cold war 1970s when a young Cambridge graduate, a mathematician by training but a compulsive inveterate reader by avocation, Serena Frome, joins the M15, the British intelligence agency.  Ultimately she moves up the ranks and is given a “soft” assignment, nothing too dangerous, of following young British writers, ones that M15 might think would benefit by clandestine financial support, in the hope that their writings might have some use in the macro setting of the cold war.  So, the beautiful Frome is assigned to bestow a grant to a young writer, Tom Haley.  How was she to know that they would fall in love, his never realizing her association with M15 (thinking she represents a nonprofit group that bestows literary endowments)?  Where there is such a secret there are the underpinnings for tension throughout the novel and McEwan capitalizes on every twist and turn.  To say any more is to give away an ingenious ending to the novel, where everything finally coalesces.

But how real life enters and is transformed by fiction is at the heart of the novel.  As an example, Serena and Tom discuss probability theory (as a reminder, Serena is a trained mathematician).  Tom doesn’t get it.  But ultimately it enters one of the short stories he is writing   He gives it to Serena to read.  She fails to see how it coalesced in the creative process until she tries to go asleep and in that state finally realizes how Tom did get it:  As I lay in the dark, waiting for sleep, I thought I was beginning to grasp something about invention. As a reader, a speed-reader, I took it for granted, it was a process I never troubled myself with. You pulled a book from the shelf and there was an invented, peopled world, as obvious as the one you lived in…. I thought I had the measure of the artifice, or I almost had it. Almost like cooking, I thought sleepily. Instead of heat transforming the ingredients, there's pure invention, the spark, the hidden element. What resulted was more than the sum of the parts…. At one level it was obvious enough how many separate parts were tipped in and deployed.  The mystery was in how they were blended into something cohesive and plausible, how the ingredients were cooked into something so delicious.  As my thought scattered and I drifted toward the borders of oblivion, I thought I almost understood how it was done.  Just a wonderful description of the creative process, how life is reflected and filtered by a writer’s story.

This is a page turner, somewhat of a classic spy story, besides being a primer on writing itself.  Ian McEwan is becoming one of the more interesting writers of the 21st century.

But I return, now, to a different kind of 20th century story (actually stories), having had the pleasure of concurrently reading Updike’s The Maples Stories. Although these were published during his lifetime, they have been posthumously issued as an “Everyman's Library Pocket Classic” in hardcover, a volume to treasure.  I had read most of these before, but to read the eighteen stories that span from 1956’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” to “Grandparenting” published in his favorite venue The New Yorker in 1994 is to view the life of the great literary man himself.  It took Adam Begley’s brilliant literary biography, Updike, to see that “the Maples” were in fact Updike and his first wife Mary.  The closest Updike had delved into autobiography was his work Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, published in 1989 but that is greatly about his growing up in Shillington, PA. 

The Maples chronicles the jealousies, infidelities, the love and the hurt, and the intimacies and the breakdown of his marriage.  Consider the aching beauty of his writing, so finely crafted in this description of when Richard Maple picks up his wife Joan in his car to finally go to court for their no fault divorce:  She got into the car, bringing with her shoes and the moist smell of dawn. She had always been an early riser, and he a late one. 'Thanks for doing this,' she said, of the ride, adding, 'I guess.' ‘My pleasure,' Richard said. As they drove to court, discussing their cars and their children, he marveled at how light Joan had become; she sat on the side of his vision as light as a feather, her voice tickling his ear, her familiar intonations  and emphases thoroughly musical and half unheard, like the patterns of a concerto that sets us to daydreaming.  He no longer blamed her: that was the reason for the lightness. All those years, he had blamed her for everything - for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her adrift from omnipotence. He had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hansel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind them ate the bread crumbs.

“Grandparenting” which takes place well after the Maples divorce is an act of atonement for Updike as it brings together the now divorced Maples one last time to participate in the birth of their first grandchild  It ends with the plaintive “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory,”  Indeed, Updike is for the ages.

a "beat" copy
And what could be more different from Updike than Jack Kerouac’s Portable Library which I managed to fit in here and there, making it mostly bedtime reading.  I read On the Road ages ago so that and his other writings in the Portable Library edition seemed new to me. Oh, man, this is the beat generation, a step before mine, but I remember it well as it played out in the late 50s and 60s.  Kerouac writes with a pulsating persistence, almost stream of consciousness, as if he just cannot fit enough life on a physical page.  It throbs with energy as he tries to absorb the “real” underbelly of America in every place imaginable, with the help of drugs, alcohol, sex, and, man, cool beat music.  It’s almost as if he did not live in the same world as an Updike who crafted his sentences like a sculpture.  No, Kerouac was more like a Jackson Pollack, frenzied by getting the colors of life just right (to him), writing in riffs like Charlie Parker (both mentioned by him in his writings). 

Here is just one breathless paragraph from his Jazz of the Beat Generation (1949) after hearing a rendition of “Close Your Eyes:”  Up steps Freddy on the bandstand and asks for a slow beat and looks sadly out the open door over people's heads and begins singing "Close Your Eyes." Things quiet down for a minute. Freddy's wearing a tattered suede jacket, a purple shirt with white buttons, cracked shoes and zoot pants without press; he didn't care. He looked like a pimp in Mecca, where there are no pimps; a barren woman's child, which is a dream; he looked like he was beat to his socks; he was down, and bent, and he played us some blues with his vocals. His big brown eyes were concerned with sadness, and the singing of songs slowly and with long thoughtful pauses. But in the second chorus he got excited and embraced the mike and jumped down from the bandstand and bent to it and to sing a note he had to touch his shoe tops and pull it all up to blow, and he blew so much he staggered from the effect, he only recovered himself in time for the next long slow note. "Mu-u-u-u-sic  pla-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!" He leaned back with his face to the ceiling, mike held at his fly. He shook his shoulders, he gave the hip sneer, he swayed. Then he leaned in almost falling with his pained face against the mike. "Ma-a-a-ke it dream-y for dan-cing"-and he looked at the street out-side, Folsom, with his lips curled in scorn-"while we go ro-rnan-n-n-cing"-he staggered sideways-"Lo-o-o-ove's holi-da-a-a-ay"-he shook his head with disgust and weariness at the whole world-"Will make it seem"-what would it make it seem?-everybody waited, he mourned-"O-kay." The piano hit a chord. "So baby come on and just clo-o-o-o-se your pretty little ey-y-y-es" -his mouth quivered, offered; he looked at us, Dean and me, with an expression that seemed to say "Hey now, what's this thing we're all putting down in this sad brown world" -and then he came to the end of his song and for this there had to be elaborate preparations during which time you could send all the messages to Garcia around the world twelve times and what difference did it make to anybody because here we were dealing with the pit and prune juice of poor beat life itself and the pathos of people in the Godawful streets, so he said and sang it, "Close-your-" and blew it way up to the ceiling with a big voice that came not from training but feeling and that much better, and blew it through to the stars and on up-"Ey-y-y-y-y-y-es" and in arpeggios of applause staggered off the platform ruefully, broodingly, nonsatisfied, artistic, arrogant. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. They gave him beers. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest.

Old home, still essentially the same
It was only after reading The Portable Jack Kerouac that I realized I have some ‘six degrees of separation’ with him.   Over a period of 12 years he lived within two miles of where I lived as a kid (92-18 107th Street, Queens, NY), first at his parent’s house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens, NY and then for five years at 94-21 134th Street, his frequently hanging out at Smokey Oval Park on Atlantic Avenue, where I used to practice with the Richmond Hill HS baseball team. This park was later renamed the Phil Rizutto Park as Rizutto played at Richmond Hill High School, and was a classmate of my father’s. 

Then, another association from my past: a close friend early in my high school years, Paul Ortloff, apparently began a relationship with Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, when he was attending Cooper Union for art.  For the first nine years of Jan’s life Kerouac had denied being her father but after a blood test he acknowledged the fact.  She only met her father two or three times.  As one might imagine, Jan, was psychologically damaged by this rejection which haunted her for her entire short life (died in her mid 40s) but as a teenager she fell head over heels in love with Paul.  I can understand why.  He was charismatic, bright, and as Jack Kerouac was to the Beat generation I suppose Paul was to psychedelic and tattoo art.  I wrote about him when I first started this blog, trying to capture some of my personal history (reading the entry today somewhat distresses me, because of the lost opportunities and its candor):  He was a rebel with a James Dean aura. In later life Paul became a psychedelic artist. His road to that distinction was paved when he first learned to carve simple tattoos into himself using India Ink, graduating to having professional tattoos injected all over his body. He and I would go off to a Coney Island tattoo parlor on the subway for those. For some reason, I hesitated doing the same (probably because I was very allergic to pain!). When I read John Irving's haunting and enigmatic “Until I Find You” I couldn’t help but think of Paul.
Paul on right; Me second from the left

Paul and I lost contact well before we graduated from high school, his going his way into psychedelic art, ultimately moving to Woodstock, NY, my going the so called straight and narrow.  Reading about him in James T. Jones’ Use My Name:Jack Kerouac's Forgotten Families brought up a lot of memories, but his relationship with Kerouac’s daughter was unknown to me at the time.  Of course I cannot verify any of this other than Jones’ account.

Interesting where reading takes you. All three of these books brought me inward, a self examination at this stage of my life.  So in spite of their differences, to me there is commonality other than the fact I read them sort of concurrently and mostly during our trip to Alaska and Seattle.  Simply put, they spoke to me very personally, one about writing, one about the marriage and craft of the short story by a writer I deeply admire (and miss), and the other about a parallel universe, one of which I was aware, but only lived through tangentially.