Right at the start of his working life as a novelist, John Updike let it be known that he was an original -- and he remained an original, seldom less than surprising and often quite astonishing, through a long and distinguished career that ended yesterday when he died at the age of 75.
He was a promising 27-year-old staff writer at The New Yorker when he turned out The Poorhouse Fair, which was nobody's idea of a typical first novel. It was a touching and penetrating account of conflict within, of all places, a home for the aged. He pitted his hero, a retired schoolteacher, against the officious tyranny of an administrator who wants only to warehouse the residents, keep them quiet and ignore their feelings. Updike's view was clear: American society was prepared to do everything for the old except let them be themselves.
He received excellent reviews and soon found he could sustain himself and his family by writing.
By writing what? Every damn thing you could imagine, as it turned out. Over a half-century-long career of sustained and ingenious effort, Updike proved himself the most versatile writer of the 20th century. In the early years critics and competitors tried to pigeonhole him, but his imagination danced off in too many directions. By middle age, he couldn't be contained within anyone's categories. Norman Mailer, surveying fellow writers in a 1959 book, classified Updike as a lightweight chronicler of the suburbs; but decades later he recanted and admitted that he envied Updike's vast accomplishment.
Updike had the natural fiction writer's unfailing sympathy for his characters. He could see their faults clearly, identify their hypocrisies when required. But he was always with them in their failures as well as their triumphs. This affection for the people marching through his pages was exuberantly demonstrated in the great epic of Updike's career, the four-book series about Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom (followed by a fifth story, Rabbit Remembered, that appeared 10 years later).
Rabbit, once a high-school basketball star in Pennsylvania, then a trapped young husband, later a successful businessman (co-owner of a Toyota dealership) is Updike's American Everyman, living through half a century in the life of America. Each of the four major books defines an era while never losing sight of its main character's struggles to find himself in a frantic, demanding, constantly changing universe.
Rabbit, Run reflects the almost mandatory optimism of the 1950s, Rabbit Redux takes him through the furies of the 1960s, Rabbit is Rich captures the prosperity of the 1970s and in Rabbit at Rest, published in 1990, we find Rabbit approaching death in Florida. He's the solid foundation on which Updike's future reputation will rest.
Aside from his long shelf of wise and ingenious fiction, and his several books of impressive poetry, Updike wrote brilliant book reviews and persuasive art criticism. He was a talented sports writer too. When Ted Williams retired from the Boston Red Sox in 1960, Updike wrote a shrewd account of baseball greatness from a fan's viewpoint, his much-anthologized "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
He wrote the most curious autobiography, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs, (1989) in which he confessed, among other things, that he had always sympathized with Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam war, quietly opposing the massed forces of American culture -- and that, stranger still, though he suffered from asthma all his life, he often had his children's cat in bed with him, resulting in frequent trips to the emergency ward for injections of adrenalin. "Get rid of the animals," his doctor would say. Updike would sigh, mumble something about the kids and take more pills.
He never ceased to exhibit an astonishing nerve. In an era when American fiction was dominated by Jews, Updike apparently decided there was no reason why Jews should have all the good Jewish characters. He invented a fictional author, Henry Bech, whose personality contained all the glories and terrors of outsider status as embodied in Jewish writing. Updike wrote three short-story collections, Bech: A Book, Bech is Back and Bech at Bay, each a shrewd imitation of Jewish sensibility.
Updike's Gertrude and Claudius (2000) was nothing less than a rewrite of Hamlet in which he made Gertrude and Claudius look good, Hamlet a bit of a villain -- and Hamlet's father a tyrant. Two years later, at age 70, he wrote an audacious novel, Seek My Face, an Updikean account of mid-century New York art, told by a 78-year-old painter who was once married to someone much like Jackson Pollock and later to a Pop artist combining the talents of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. Of the Pollock character, who drank himself to death, his ex-wife says "He hated himself for becoming a celebrity ... For being made to see, I suppose, that becoming a celebrity was what he wanted all along."
In those days, she says, everyone wanted to put their "self " on the canvas -- that was all anybody talked about. Abstraction, she explains, was so glamorous because it was "all self." Updike has a minor character explain that each painting was a wrestle with God, the self and beauty.
That's Updike himself talking. He was a God-haunted author, who introduced the deity in some of the least expected places. When he was writing book reviews regularly, it sometimes seemed that every second piece dealt with his changing views of theology, which somehow always involved Kierkegaard. He was a famously busy writer, absorbed in the intense busyness of his soul. All of Updike's writing leaves us with the powerful feeling that something serious is at stake.