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Updike at rest

As year after year passed without his getting the Nobel prize,Updike shrugged and awarded a fictional Nobel to one of his more annoying creations

Written by The Washington Post | January 29, 2009 2:06:51 am

John Updike,whose finely polished novels and stories exploring the virtues,vices and spent hopes of America’s small town and suburbs earned him two Pulitzer Prizes and kept him at the pinnacle of the nation’s literary life for five decades,died Tuesday at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms,Mass. He was 76 and had lung cancer.

Updike was often labeled the bard of suburban adultery — “a subject which,if I have not exhausted,has exhausted me,” he once said — and many of his early works of fiction were considered scandalously explicit. His literary reach went far beyond a study of the nation’s sexual mores. Updike’s essays — collected in 10 thick anthologies — dug deeply into subjects as varied as art history,philosophy,European and Japanese literature,movie stars and golf. His best remembered essay was undoubtedly “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a touching 1960 evocation of baseball star Ted Williams’s final game at Boston’s Fenway Park,which Updike memorably called “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” In Williams’ final time at bat,the aging Boston Red Sox superstar hit a home run. “Like a feather caught in a vortex,” Updike wrote,“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.”

Updike may have been the finest prose stylist of his generation. “No one else using the English language over the past 2 1/2 decades has written so well in so many ways as he,” critic Paul Gray wrote in 1982. But Updike’s stylistic felicity and assembly-line productivity weren’t always well received. By the 1990s,novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe called Updike “insular,effete and irrelevant,” and writer David Foster Wallace asked whether he “ever had one unpublished thought.” Yale University scholar Harold Bloom dismissed Updike as “a minor novelist with a major style.”

He seldom addressed directly the social issues of the 1960s,preferring to keep his attention focused on the inner motives of his characters.“Everything can be as interesting as every other thing,” Updike once told Life magazine. “My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash,where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Updike captured that clash of extremes — desire and disappointment,success and hopelessness — most vividly in the “Rabbit” tetralogy. “Rabbit,Run” (1960) introduced Harry Angstrom,the basketball star from a town in Pennsylvania. The three later volumes — “Rabbit Redux” (1971),“Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) — followed Angstrom’s career as a successful car dealer and an unhappy husband,whose wife is an alcoholic and whose son becomes a drug addict. Angstrom seeks solace in women and civic success without ever finding true happiness. The two final volumes in the series won the Pulitzer Prize and prompted critic Thomas M. Disch to take the measure of the novels: “Updike’s Rabbit and the landscape he inhabits more closely resemble the world I’ve witnessed during the time span of the four novels — 1959 through 1989 — than any other work of American literature I know.”

John Hoyer Updike was born March 18,1932,in Reading,Pa.,and grew up in the nearby town of Shillington,which he later transformed into the fictional setting of Olinger. He spent much of his childhood reading and drawing,and his early dream was to be a cartoonist. “My first break came late in my college career when a short story that I had based on my grandmother’s slow dying of Parkinson’s disease was returned with a note scrawled in pencil at the bottom of the rejection slip,” he wrote in AARP magazine last year. “It read,if my failing memory serves: ‘Look— we don’t use stories of senility,but try us again.”

His first book was a collection of largely playful verse that received positive comparisons to the humorous poems of Ogden Nash. By the early 1960s,critics were comparing his sensitive,quietly compelling fiction to the stories of Russian master Anton Chekhov.

In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes,Updike won the National Book Award twice and the PEN/Faulkner Award once. He was often rumored to be in contention for the Nobel Prize for literature. As year after year passed without his getting the prize,he became a prime example of the stubborn views of the Swedish Academy toward American literature. Updike shrugged and awarded a fictional Nobel to one of his more annoying creations,Henry Bech.

In recent years,Updike often wrote essays on art for the New York Review of Books and sometimes lamented his shrinking audience and the declining role of books in modern life. Reading,he said at a publishing convention in 2006,is an “encounter,in silence,of two minds.”

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