Hearing of John Updike’s death in January of this year, I had two immediate, ordinary reactions. The first was a protest—“But I thought we had him for another ten years”; the second, a feeling of disappointment that Stockholm had never given him the nod. The latter was a wish for him, and for American literature, the former a wish for me, for us, for Updikeans around the world.
Though it was not as if he hadn’t left us enough to read. For years now his lifelong publishers at Knopf have been giving back-flap approximations. In the mid-1990s, in a cute philoprogenitive linking, he was “the father of four children and the author of more than forty books.” By the time of The Early Stories (2003) they had him, in a hands-in-the-air sort of way, as “the author of fifty-odd previous books.” Now, with Endpoint, they award him “more than sixty books.”
Why ask for another ten years, and probably ten books, when even devoted Updikeans have probably only read half or two thirds of the corpus? Nicholson Baker’s act of homage, U and I (1991), was impudently predicated on the fact that he hadn’t by any means read all of Updike, or fully remembered what he had read—and no, he wasn’t going to do any extra homework before paying his tribute. It was a quirky approach, with which fellow Updikeans would sympathize; even if it did dangerously invite the act of imitation. I enjoyed Baker’s book, without feeling obliged to read it all.
But Updike’s fertility was matched by his courtesy—both as a man and as an authorial presence. His fiction never set out to baffle or intimidate—although he certainly could intimidate. Philip Roth, with memorably mock-aggrieved generosity, said of Rabbit is Rich (1981):
Updike knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America. I don’t know anything about anything. His hero is a Toyota salesman. Updike knows everything about being a Toyota salesman. Here I live in the country and I don’t even know the names of the trees. I’m going to give up writing.
Yet Updike always treated the reader as a joint partner in the artistic process, an adult equal with whom curiosity and delight in the world were to be shared. Departing, he left us not just one extra book, but two. It was an act of courtesy, but also of necessity. While Updike breathed, he wrote, and his entranced attentiveness to the world continued all the way to his deathbed. His final utterances, poems specifically dated from 11/02/08 to 12/22/08, are about hospital life, pneumonia, dead friends, needle biopsy, CAT-scan, “endpoint”; and the tone and truthfulness of this last looking-around—
Days later, the results came casually through:
The gland, biopsied, showed metastasis.
— are both exemplary to any writer and infinitely touching to…
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