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A Life in Books

Nine ways to understand John Updike

Written by Sudeep Paul |
February 1, 2009 3:56:52 pm

Nine ways to understand John Updike
The poet of suburban,small-town America,John Updike marked out his territory in a spot of Pennsylvania. Few writers have caught the play of light and shade on life and land in such astute prose verging on the poetic. But Updike was importantly the chronicler of smaller people coursing through history,without always knowing it. And yet,it isn’t easy to tie Updike down to period motifs. A keen observer of human and other natures,a master of the metaphor,Updike gave the great American suburban middle class a narrative of their own. With his death on January 27,the old school of American letters is closer to its end.

Rabbit,Run (1960) — The first book of Updike’s defining Rabbit cycle,it created the legend of Harry Rabbit Angstrom,a high-school basketball star who became a car salesman and went astray as a husband. Rabbit,Run spans five months of the protagonist’s life at 26,with his attempts to escape the boredom and frustration of small-town America. Angstrom,in an inflated sense of self-importance,would come to see in America’s decline his own fall from fortune’s promises.

The Centaur (1963) — The title refers to one of the most memorable Updike motifs about human potential. An unparalleled portrayal of high-school life in the 1950s,but not the best treasure in the Updike canon.

Couples (1968) — Updike’s classic contribution to the changing socio-sexual mores of the 1960s. Couples is a poet-observer’s interpretation of the new energies in life around him.

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Bech,a Book (1970) — Revisited in Bech is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay (1998),Henry Bech,a Jewish writer who suffers writer’s block,is Updike’s second alter-ego (after Rabbit). Bech was Updike’s tool to mock the Nobel committee that had ignored him and also refer,not too kindly,to the Jewish pillars of post-war American fiction: Saul Bellow,Philip Roth,Norman Mailer.

Too Far to Go (1979) — Updike would have had his place in American letters even if he never wrote a novel. This series of short stories about the Maples studies a couple over two decades,exploring the creative and destructive aspects of life as it’s led: how and why two people destroy what had taken them so much and so long to create,their marriage.

The Witches of Eastwick (1984) — With half of his career spent on the wrong side of the Feminists,Updike created three ordinary women who wielded extraordinary power through the occult. Alexandra,Jane and Sukie are pseudo-feminist divorcees victimised by society. They turn on life and society by appropriating all that they were forbidden — power over men and unadulterated sexual pleasure. In 2008,Updike wrote the sequel,The Widows of Eastwick,which found the witches aging and crumbling; their lives now hostage to the likes and times of the next generation.  

Rabbit at Rest (1990) — Older by decades,Rabbit dies of heart failure in this final book of the cycle,ironically and touchingly soon after winning a one-on-one basketball game with a Florida youth. Disappointed in life,disappointed in his drug-addict son,Rabbit had found some solace in his grandchild but died in hiding,having been found out on his escapade with his daughter-in-law. Decrepitude and death henceforth become prominent in Updike’s works,as the author himself passed beyond mid-life.

In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) — A fine example of Updike’s grasp on American history through its ordinary protagonists. That larger history is refracted through a single family’s eight-decade long course,with a philosopher’s insight into and artist’s hand working on the hopes and burdens passed on from one generation to the next.

Terrorist (2006) — This late work is of topical interest to the post-9/11 world. It explores the predicament of Ahmad A. Mulloy,a Muslim-American teenager,and the motivation of jihadis. The novel is also an indictment of the life and prejudices on the other side,that of a fictional New Jersey suburb.

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