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Jew d’Esprit

Bech Is Back

by John Updike
Knopf, 195 pp., $13.95

The return of Henry Bech was, one might think, something less than inevitable. After all, when, “with his thinning curly hair and melancholy Jewish nose,” Bech first surfaced in a short story in the mid-1960s, the American Jewish Novel was approaching its heyday as a generic cultural commodity. In 1965 Herzog concluded a two-year stay near the top of the bestseller lists. By 1970, when seven Bech stories appeared together (with addenda) as Bech: A Book, “Portnoy” was peaking—as a household name, as a nightclub punch-line; Salinger’s silence boomed then too, almost as loudly as Mailer’s word factory. In short, a fictional composite of the working American Jewish Novelist must have seemed like a good idea at the time—especially since the novelists themselves, however feverishly personal their alter egos, were still avoiding self-portraiture of the more transparently autobiographical kind.

So John Updike, that least Semitic of colleagues, quickly filled the vacuum with precisely the right blend of curiosity, affection, satire, and just-for-the-fun-of-it craft. Bech: A Book was a hard-working impersonation in casual-frolic dress, complete with a parody bibliography, lit. crit. in-jokes, and an introduction from Henry Bech himself—who gave his shrug of a blessing to this “little jeu of a book” and slyly defused à clef murmurings in advance by immediately noting the Bechian similarities to Mailer, Malamud, Singer, Bellow, Roths (2), Fuchs (1), and others. (He also astutely wagged a finger: “By the way, I never—unlike retired light-verse writers—make puns.”)

But the moment for a “little jeu of a book” about the American Jewish Novelist certainly has passed now—even if Updike could (and might) claim with justice that “some of my best books are jeu-ish.” The AJN per se is no longer at the center of serious-yet-popular fiction, no longer even superficially generic. Furthermore, in the dozen years since A Book, Bech territory has been vigorously invaded by the Bech originals. Philip Roth—as if to say “You thought Portnoy was autobiographical? I’ll show you autobiographical!”—made himself an unabashed mirror-man called Nathan Zuckerman, with both magical (The Ghost Writer) and mundane (Zuckerman Unbound) results. Isaac Bashevis Singer stands even more frequently (as the famous writer, not just the bemused observer) at the heart of a Singer story. Malamud’s Dubin and Heller’s Gold may not be novelists, but they’re working writers. And Bellow, richly confessional about the literary life in Humboldt’s Gift, seems ever more patently autobiographical with his (non-Jewish, non-novelist) hero in The Dean’s December.

Why, then, this comeback for Henry Bech—child of Williamsburg, would-be recluse of Riverside Drive, Casanova not-so-manqué? If impersonation were the point, surely Bech would have been allowed to retreat, the victim of terminal writer’s block, into well-earned obscurity. Even in Bech: A Book, however, there were hints that Updike’s investment in the game went far beyond the playful or the timely. The mock foreword by Bech begins: “Well, if you must commit the artistic indecency of writing about a writer, better I suppose about me than you.” Moreover, Bech wonders whether his fictional portrait doesn’t contain “something Waspish, theological, scared, and insulatingly ironical” that’s echt Updike. And now, in Bech Is Back, with darker comedies that gather up an ominous momentum (as the earlier stories didn’t), the necessity behind Bech’s reappearance becomes clear: even more than Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Henry Bech is a tight mesh against which Updike can press his intellect and his anxieties as hard as he likes, knowing that only the most grainy, refracted self-portrait—and no “artistic indecency”—will push through.

Not that the sense of on-the-spot literary fun is missing from Bech Is Back. The book’s first paragraph alone manages to work in references to Philip Rahv, Ken Kesey, and Kate Millett (her “condemnation of the rape bits in Travel Light,” Bech’s solitary triumph). We soon learn that Bech has just received “the Melville Medal, awarded every five years to that American author who has maintained the most meaningful silence.” Later on there’s a supremely funny, anything-but-timeless bon mot that depends on a familiarity with John Houseman’s television commercial for Smith, Barney; and when Bech at last finishes Think Big, after nearly twenty years “in progress,” the reviews arrive in the quintessential remarks of everyone from Alfred Kazin (“the squalid book we all deserve”) to Ellen Willis (“Yet another occasion for rejoicing that one was born a woman”).

This time, however, all of the jokes—except for one wanly farcical footnote—seem to be as much Bech’s as Updike’s. (No puns.) The impersonation meshwork throughout, in fact, is even more finely cross-hatched than before—not because Bech has grown more appealing as a satiric target (he hasn’t), but because Updike continues to be the increasingly rare sort of fiction writer who thrives on the friction between author and subject, who seems to relish, with undiminishing enthusiasm, the labor of absorbing the foreign, building up the Other. (Saul Bellow’s dean, for instance, halfheartedly gotten up as a non-Jewish academic, is more macramé than mesh, with the author forever poking through the large, ropy holes.) Indeed, “Write What You Know” is, for Updike, the least congenial of imperatives; at his best he writes about what he has to learn or intuit—letting what he knows (or feels) leak through, discreetly. With Rabbit, this impulse toward meticulous and elaborate impersonation has helped to generate mid-twentieth-century fiction’s richest evocation of the American middle class, even if the narrator/character counterpoint is an occasionally uneasy one: bending over backward not to condescend, Updike can too often be seen—rather than felt—pulling strings from above, putting images into Rabbit’s less lyrical brain. (A few years after the publication of Rabbit Redux Updike told an unpersuaded interviewer: “Rabbit more or less thinks like I do, which is sort of…pretty dumb.”) In Bech, however, whose arrivals in book form suggestively coincide with Rabbit’s, Updike has found an alter ego—Other but Equal—who can hit back, who demands wary respect. The string-pulling with Bech is more a tug-of-war. The writer-on-writer premise is a danger—a spur to discipline, to tightening the mesh—as well as an opportunity. The more vivid Bech’s differences, the more he can become a soulmate in disguise.

Thus, in this new book’s first line, Updike reminds us that Henry Bech, in his middle years, “had all but ceased to write”; his block is still legendary; his early works “cast shuddering shadows toward the center of his life, where that thing called his reputation cowered.” Bech at fifty has managed four books (not counting The Best of Bech). Updike at fifty has published twenty-six. Yet there is nothing smugly sympathetic (let alone disdainful) in the death-grin view of literary impotence—and venal hackdom—in Bech’s opening expedition, which takes him to a sorry Caribbean resort owned by the Superoil Corporation. There, for $1.50 per signature, assisted by a “puller” of his choice (he chooses high-strung ex-mistress Norma), Bech will spend two weeks sunning, swimming, and signing his name on 28,500 “tip-in sheets of high-rag content paper”—all of them destined for Super-books’ pigskin limited edition of Bech’s 1957 novella Brother Pig. (The proposition is not unlike one offered by the Franklin Library to obliging writers, including Updike.)

But while “Yellow Bird” repeats again and again over the loudspeaker system, while Norma dispenses literary criticism (“You’re fussing over them, I can’t stand it! You just romped through those early boxes”), Bech finds himself unable to function even as a hand-writer. (Just as—in another self-deprecating metaphor for professional authorship—Rabbit was stripped of his linotype machine in Rabbit Redux.) And this Sorcerer’s Apprentice of a nightmare, whose slightly surreal writing bondage recalls the reading-bondage dénouement of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, ends with Bech gazing deep into “the negative perfection to which his career had been brought. He could not even write his own name.”

The prolific Updike, the “exquisitely unprolific” Bech: the counterpoint is slyly engaging. But the comedy would be merely nasty if the authorial agony weren’t genuine, if one didn’t suspect that the utter foreignness of Bech’s grimly plausible career was allowing his more industrious (but perhaps no less dissatisfied) colleague to explore a universal writer’s wound or (at the very least) to surround himself in there-but-for-the-grace-of-God dread. Similarly, Updike—a veteran chronicler of wedlock and paternity—can, with the bachelor Bech, see if sexuality looks any less complicated down the road not taken. It doesn’t, of course. In two montages (the book’s least effective pieces), Bech travels through the third world, then to celibate Toronto and a one-night stand in Sydney, and finds himself tired, imperiled; he misses his Episcopalian mistress Bea, younger and gentler sister of Norma, divorced mother of three; “he thought… of his plump suburban softy, her belly striated with fine silver lines, and vowed to marry her, to be safe.”

So now Bech enters the hillier despair of Updike country—marriage, step-fathering, divorce, adultery (“A sacred experience, like not honoring your father and mother”), even suburbia and success. But, with the impersonation intact, with the firm boundaries of Bech’s particularity calling forth Updike’s most gorgeously restrained prose, the implicit double-voicing only becomes sharper: if you hear an Updike echo behind Bech’s gloomy murmur, it’s a bonus rather than a distraction—like hearing the expected chord along with the unexpected one in a false cadence. Marriage, fleetingly appealing, is promptly exposed as “an attempt to be safe on an earth where there was no safety.” Henry and Bea honeymoon in Israel; the bride is revealed as a “radiant aberrant,” perpetually thrilled by “the Holy Land”; the anti-Zionist groom sees only “a ghetto with farms,” reacts unsuitably to the Holy Sepulcher. (“‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Bech said. ‘It was garbage, of an ultimate sort.”’) Henry gives Bea a birthday trip to her ancestral land of Scotland—where the novelist, already partial to Great Britain (“since its decline was as notorious as his”), revels in the cruelties of Scottish history while the novelist’s wife recoils, feels her Scottishness being appropriated, feels herself “becoming a character” in Bech’s insatiable (if inactive) writer’s mind.

Yet it is in Ossining, of all places (home to Cheever and bastion of Gentility), that Bech—having established himself beyond all doubt as a peculiar, specific, non-Updikean fellow—is allowed to emerge most vividly as alter ego, even as writer prototype. Reluctantly transplanted from Manhattan to Bea’s inadequately insulated mock-Tudor (where “the ringing phone was never in someone else’s apartment, and the child crying downstairs was always one’s own”), Bech is nudged back to his desk at last, shamed into picking up the unfinished Think Big, and pecks away at it with un-fastidious industry: “He had determined not to rewrite, in his usual patient-spider style, or even to reread, except to check the color of a character’s hair or sports car….” Faults and fillers are allowed to roll right into the manuscript (partly in spiteful retaliation against Bea’s Puritan-ethic view of writing-as-a-job). For the first time Bech puts New York Jews—TV biz biggies—at the center of his fiction. The novel’s world seems to him imperfectly explored, “a cave illumined by feeble flashlight.” His publishing house—much changed in the fifteen years since his last manuscript submission—is crassly, indiscriminately enthusiastic, worthy of an S.J. Perelman vignette. Aromas of taint and compromise waft in.

The book, of course, is a huge success. Equally predictable, perhaps, is Bech’s bad-taste-in-the-mouth response to People-style celebrity in the 1980s. But there’s a splendid ambivalence in the less gaudy, less expected moral thickets involved in the making of Think Big. Bea, instigator of the sellout—or goddess of productivity?—is Swifty Lazar one minute, Mary Baker Eddy the next, appalled by the foulness of the book’s Jewish characters, the jerkiness of its Gentiles, the misanthropy of its author; Updike’s selective glimpses of the novel itself allow us both to see her point and to reject it. (“Maybe I can soften it,” says Bech. “Take out the place where the video crew masturbates all over Olive’s drugged body, put in a scene where they all come up to Ossining and admire the fall foliage.”) On somewhat shakier ground, Bea blames the sheer physical proximity of the Think Big manuscript (now “that damn dirty book of yours”) for her teenage daughter’s routine loss of virginity. And even if one doesn’t recall that Couples was for many readers “that damn dirty book” or that Rabbit, Run (among others) was condemned for its misanthropy by some, the emotional heat behind the comic effects is unmistakable here.

Whatever the merits of Think Big, Bech has lavishly abandoned the credo of the blocked writer—“There was in the world a pain concerning which God had set an example of pure and absolute silence”—and he suffers accordingly. Adultery with fellow truth-teller Norma finishes off the teetering marriage. (A fond relationship with Bea’s small son was souring anyway.) Bech is last seen alone at a decadent publishing party—learning that his novel understated the vileness of current commerce, finding prosperous America radiant yet unclean (“Treyf, he thought”), and waiting to be carried off, if all else fails, by an immense mud-wrestler in a Dior nightie.

Despite the superb one-liners and some extraordinary broad satire, then, Bech is on a roller coaster this time, not a merry-go-round; he’s left stalled, at the top, with no one to blame (aside from everyone) and nowhere to go but down. But Updike’s rugged fatalism—poles apart from Bech’s own yielding variety—has never before been so delicately illustrated. And never before has Updike been seduced into such tense, tenderly ambiguous rapport with a character. “I’ve tried being other people,” says Bech in his first book, “but nobody was unconvinced.” Updike tries being other people too, with far greater success; and the more he himself is convinced and won over by them (“Bech shifted from buttock to buttock in his squeaking chair, empathizing”), the more his work finds perfect, fable-like balance—as it does in the best stories here—between observation and confession, the needle and the embrace.

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