I lost a friend today. A friend I had never met in person, a friend of at least forty years standing, because I first made his acquaintance in my teens. His name was John Updike, and he was America’s greatest writer, post-Hemingway.
Oh, I’m sure I can, and will, get a lot of argument about that last statement. But I have not the slightest doubt about it. In the second half of the 20th century, there was no greater American writer. Internationally, I would put only Nabokov and Garcia Marquez in his company.When Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and all the other poseurs are forgotten, Updike’s work will live. He was, in Ben Jonson’s phrase, not of an age, but for all time.
Asked about his ideal reader, in a 1966 Paris Review interview, Updike said he imagined his books sitting on a library shelf in Kansas and having a teenage boy come along and read them and have the books speak to him. I always imagined that teenage boy was me.
My favorites include novels like Couples, Marry Me, and Rabbit Redux; short stories like A&P, The Persistence of Desire, Friends From Philadelphia, Snowing In Greenwich Village, The Alligators, The Witnesses, and countless others. His essays on baseball, like Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu and The First Kiss, surpass the best sports writing that journalists can offer. Aside from baseball, the author and I shared an obsession with golf. His humor could and did make me laugh out loud. His story Confessions Of A Wild Bore in the Feb. 6, 1960 edition of The New Yorker made me fall off a chair, I laughed so hard. His literary criticism never failed to interest me. Much of his light verse I can recite by heart.
Updike wrote around 50 books. I just went to my own bookshelves and counted. I own 47. One is autographed, although I am at a loss to think how that could be of interest to anyone but me.
A criticism leveled at Updike was that he wrote about the ordinary. But Updike knew, as perhaps no one since Chekhov has known, that there is nothing ordinary in creation, that the extraordinary is everywhere, that description is praise, and that every now and then, the muddled surface of things parts to yield us a gift.
In an interview with Salon magazine, Updike said, “I distrust books involving spectacular people, or spectacular events. Let People and The National Enquirer pander to our taste for the extraordinary; let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men.”
For those of you who are lucky enough to have still not encountered John Updike’s writing. Here is his much-anthologized story A&P, and here is a two-part interview in which Updike talks about the story, some forty years after it was written.
All that lives must die, as Hamlet’s mother says, passing through nature to eternity. That fact, and our consciousness of it, is part of what Updike called “the madness of being alive.” Now he too has passed through nature to eternity. And my world, ennobled by his writing, is the poorer for it.