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Top of the Class

There are, of course, vivid individuals in his fiction. His cranks and creeps, who generally dog the central character’s path or embarrass him, are often wonderful. Among the best are the butlerish and manic fuddy-duddy from Oxford in the story “A Madman,” the belligerently profane Gregg in the novel The Poorhouse Fair, the blandly annoying yogi in the story “The Christian Roommates,” and the dank Marvin Federbusch in “Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author,” one of the Bech stories. Updike is clearly drawn to these impulsive, blithely selfish, untormented souls—he gives them the best lines. Unconcerned about looking foolish, they’re the antithesis of his central characters. But he doesn’t linger with them. He seems to see them as unchanging forces, not people who might grow in dimension.

Unwilling to push his central male characters over the edge, Updike is too forgiving toward his other characters—as he is too benign toward the authors he reviews. He’d rather leave everyone shuffling along; maybe they’ll be stronger when they reappear in his next novel or story, or in the next book of theirs he will review. That may be why his endings are more like postponements, and can be abrupt, inconclusive, pat—too sour or too ethereal. His narratives and reviews often have the quality of being visited, at the end, by an angelic outsider or by a wise old King Solomon—a spirit, as it were, who descends for this moment to gently draw the curtains on the stage we’ve been watching or to lift the proceedings to a loftier realm. And possibly because Updike won’t let his fictional subjects fulfill their destinies, his black moods appear in choked-off, harping, and indirect ways. His manner of pointing out the flaws of his characters and of the subjects of his reviews is, in tone, often lordly and unengaged—more condescending than he may realize. It’s as if he felt he was being kind to them by being unengaged.

Certainly no one thing explains the fuzziness at the core of Updike’s work, but in his early stories, especially those set in a small Pennsylvania town, we feel we’re seeing the dilemmas in his own life that first pulled him in opposite directions and left him with his sense of the unresolvable-ness of things. Some of the most intense, packed stories—“The Alligators,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “Flight,” “The Happiest I’ve Been”—involve the courtship rites of teen-agers. The stories aren’t about sex, though. They’re about a character (his name is always different) who courts because he feels he ought to, and who is often most at peace when circumstances let him off the hook. Updike’s young man knows he’s superior to virtually everyone; he’s the kid who gets straight A’s, and he is more perceptive about everything outside school. But, except for his parents, there isn’t anyone in his town, maybe anyone in the whole county, who can appreciate what that means. No, he has to win in the eyes of his classmates, and yet to be average is, in a way, to slum, and the tension in the stories comes from the way the young man keeps being caught by his more popular peers—and by himself—in the act of trying to pass. There is even a moment when, at a luncheonette one snowy day, in “A Sense of Shelter,” he looks around at the kids who are with him in his booth and realizes that, somehow squeezed out of the tables with his fellow seniors, he has settled for being a leader of a band of brainy but childish juniors—kids who are at a loss at parties and would never know what to do after a prom.

There’s a European, nineteenth-century note to Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories. They form one long tale of a provincial teacher’s son, a gifted, questioning, and kind young man, a prince by nature, who grows up knowing that he will never be a true prince and that, no matter how much he accomplishes when he goes away, he will always be the teacher’s son when he comes back to his town. The stories are moving but they aren’t cathartic, because the young man never consciously decides to risk isolation and face the fact of his superiority. We’re never sure which role he most wants. What he settles for is a priestly, in-between role. Though he doesn’t put his future course of action in words, it’s clear that he will leave, and live up to his brilliant promise, but he won’t let himself fly. He’ll be like a man who, ashamed of his inherited riches, develops a limp, when there is actually nothing wrong with his legs, so the world will realize that, in some way, he has paid his dues.

The character’s moment of settling is best seen in “The Happiest I’ve Been.” After a long night of hectic and wearying Christmas-season partying, from house to house, the nineteen-year-old John Nordholm and his friend Neil Hovey finally get going, in the early morning hours, on their long drive to Chicago, where John is going to join his girlfriend. In the very last sentences, John, who’s at the wheel, thinks about the beautiful prospects of his girl waiting for him in Chicago, and of the pleasingly long and empty winter journey stretching out before him. And he realizes how good he has felt when, earlier in that night, two of his peers, in different times and places, have fallen asleep right next to him. He feels honored because, essentially, they have taken him for granted.

The Pennsylvania stories present a picture of an only child who continually watches, and tries to account for, two mighty figures—his mother and father. They are the only people in his numbingly ordinary world who are as sensitive and perceptive as he is. Though he finds his guileless father an embarrassment, and there is always a gulf between him and his mother, he wants to keep them, and their past, on a pedestal, and the reader understands why: if not for his parents, there would be nothing for Updike’s young protagonist to believe in. He seems to make a religion out of being an average kid, even of being a proud son and celebrator of his state of Pennsylvania, because it keeps him, in his mind, from outgrowing his parents; if he outgrew them he’d be truly alone.


Updike’s aesthetic—his belief in the “home base of all humanism”—seems to stem from that awareness: the facts of the world have to be honored because otherwise there is nothing. It is as though realism preserves him from a nihilism that he suspects is his truest response. And if he can become edgy and taskmasterish when he’s talking about the “home base of all humanism,” it may be because the idea is possibly something of a myth to him. He sometimes seems to be saying, “I’ve stayed loyal to my belief in the average, I’ve paid my dues to the everyday—so should you.” Updike is at his sharpest when he straightforwardly describes his ambivalent responses. But just as his fiction is often most alive in those moments when one of his embarrassing or babyish individuals takes center stage, so he reveals more of himself when he writes about authors—Herman Melville, Knut Hamsun, William S. Burroughs, in particular—who feel hampered by, or are oblivious of, the “home base” of anything. It’s not that these pieces are his best. Updike doesn’t fight these writers directly; his relationship to them is not as clear as it might be. But, for the reader, there is a welcome friction in Updike’s attempt to make some writers presentable, or to put others in their place. Writing as a defender of the faith, Updike also seems to be looking at men he might have been.

In “Melville’s Withdrawal,” the longest and oddest piece in the book, he tries to make Melville a kind of clubman. Updike wants to tell us that Moby-Dick wasn’t, as a legend has it, a critical or financial failure, and that, contrary to some other myth, Melville didn’t stop writing after it. Analyzing what Melville did write in the remaining thirty-nine years of his life, though, Updike believes that he was “right to withdraw, when he did, from a battle that had become a losing battle.” There is little in Updike’s densely detailed piece that is factually new. What is new is his attempt to pull out the passion and tension from Melville’s life and work. Updike creates a Melville who, though he had little taste for the small change of literary life, was, right through the publication of Moby-Dick, a regular working author, selling his wares in the marketplace like any other.

To prove that his subject was hardly an unappreciated genius, Updike shows how well Moby-Dick was received by reviewers and how reasonably Melville fared through the sale of his books. (Updike even tells us how Melville’s advances and royalties translate into dollars today.) He’d also like us to see that Melville, no longer having anything to say after Moby-Dick, made the right professional move in gradually leaving the literary scene. To illustrate this, Updike makes mincemeat out of most of the good-sized books Melville wrote in the drawn-out final act of his life. Updike pounces on the opportunity of describing what he perceives as the bloated, stagnant, or dry qualities of Pierre and The Confidence-Man; but even “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and Billy Budd, which also followed Moby-Dick, are unexciting to him. He tosses bits of textbook praise in their direction.

It’s debatable if Updike finds any of Melville exciting, especially when we learn that Melville’s “favorite pastime,” in his writing, is “woolgathering upon absolute matters in an atmosphere of male companionship.” But Updike’s chief concern isn’t Melville’s writing—it’s Melville’s wounded and groping behavior, which seems to grate on him and which he wants us to see in a new light. He tells us that Melville, when still in his thirties, became obsessed with “greatness, in the sense that Shakespeare and Dante possessed it,” and that he was right to withdraw to his “public silence and private poetry” when his juices presumably ran dry after Moby-Dick, because then, at least, he “preserved his communion with greatness.” By these words, Updike may believe that he has reburied Melville as a pro. But the words are blurry; mightn’t he also be saying that Melville was overly ambitious and that he spent his last thirty-nine years in a sulk?

Knut Hamsun is another undomesticated individualist Updike wants to straighten out. Updike has written more extensively about this novelist (in reviews here and in Picked-Up Pieces) than probably any other American critic. For Updike, as for many of us, Hamsun is as fresh and urgent now as he is known to have been to his original audience. When we read him, nearly all sense of historical time and place disappears; we forget that the setting is Norway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—we experience his characters’ every wavering impulse, whether cruel or tender, in a magnified way. Yet Updike, who describes this writer so well, always sees a hitch; he invariably shows how Hamsun’s vision is centered too exclusively on fevered, isolated, and unpredictable hobo geniuses. Updike’s point is: can we trust the insights, however liberating, of such adrift and unconnected minds?

In Hugging the Shore, he reviews two of the writer’s later, and not so successful, works, The Wanderer and The Women at the Pump. The review of The Women at the Pump is called “Saddled with the World”; the title comes from a line of Hamsun’s and Updike uses it to describe what he believes was the novelist’s predicament as he aged: to keep writing, he was forced to bring more of the facts of the everyday world into his work, and he wasn’t suited to the task. As Updike presents it, Hamsun couldn’t settle down and tell a sustained story about his “characters and their interwoven lives”—his spirit was too anarchic, footloose, Olympian.

Updike’s feeling about Hamsun is very similar to his feeling about Melville. He isn’t simply saying that their later work is poor. He’s implying that these solitary wanderers received their comeuppance: they became “saddled with the world,” or had to “withdraw,” when they ran out of the egocentric artistic capital of their youth. He may be looking at them with a mixture of wariness and longing, too, because, in their work, and by the example of their lives, they represent a freedom that Updike, in his work, rejects. It is almost as though the three of them were brothers, and he were the proper one, and he felt genuinely sorry for them, and genuinely superior, and he knew, too, that they were getting away with something he couldn’t. Demonstrating how Melville had to withdraw from a “losing battle,” he seems to be reassuring himself that any writer would become a loser if he believed that he was superior to his public—or if he was presumptuous enough to think that if he couldn’t be in Shakespeare’s company he wouldn’t want to be in anyone’s company.

And if Updike appears a bit unsettled by Hamsun it may be because Hamsun’s characters do what Updike’s characters think about doing. Updike’s world is more like Hamsun’s than he may realize. Rabbit Angstrom, at least as he appears in Updike’s first novel about him, Rabbit, Run, has the makings of one of Hamsun’s solitary, cussed, dissatisfied, and tragic rovers. And all of Updike’s men, though they are generally married, are unattached bachelors at heart. Except that, never set free, always selfsaddled to the world, they somehow are never as happy, or able to sink as deeply into their loves, as Hamsun’s men.

Updike makes you want to shake him, because he always seems to be denying a part of himself. You feel that he has it in him to be the romantic monster he disapproves of in others, and that, by a flick of a switch, powerful emotions might pour forth. He says he’s hugging the shore as a critic, and he shows his fictional characters doing the same thing. But whenever his criticism or his fiction has a special bristling energy, his underlying question often seems to be: How do I weigh anchor and get out of here? How does a man break loose? Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t found an answer for this question that his writing has a bottled, untouched quality. Updike found his assured voice, as a critic and fiction writer, when he was fairly young, and that voice hasn’t changed. Nor has it ever seemed quite his own creation. Writing with an eerily developed authority and fluency when he was still in his twenties, Updike could almost have been mimicking the tone of a professional author. In some way, he still mimics. Whether his subject is Roland Barthes or Rabbit Angstrom, he wants to show us that he has mastered the appropriate lingo for the occasion.

Updike has always been celebrated for his language, yet his twining rhythms and shifting textures often seem to be a cover for him. He frequently seems to mean something different from—even the opposite of—what he says. He tells us, in his fiction and reviews, that he has volunteered to be saddled with the world, or to be a kind of lifeguard, patrolling the shore, for us. He wants to be our Lancelot. Yet if we sometimes aren’t sure if we have heard him right, it is possibly because he means what he says only as a gesture—he has given us only half of his thought. A reader may sense that it is up to him to supply the concluding half, and to say, “Please, you don’t have to sacrifice yourself.” Updike’s own story is a stonier, and also a bigger and more anxious, one than any he has yet told. He has shaped a language for himself that doesn’t do justice to his emotions. They are able to come out only between the lines. When John Nordholm drives out of Pennsylvania that morning, in “The Happiest I’ve Been,” he wants to list the reasons why, at that moment, he’s happy. The story’s title, though, and what we hear in his words, suggest that what he is actually talking about, in a kind of code, is his unhappiness.

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