Dominique Nabokov

John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1984; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

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 any long-term reader.

After the first shock of death came the realization that even a Nobel could guarantee only temporary permanence. (In Bech at Bay, from 1998, Izzy asks Bech if he’s ever wanted to be a literary judge. “‘No,’ Bech admitted. ‘I always duck it.’ ‘Me, too. So who accepts? Midgets. So who do they choose for the prize? Another midget.'”). Then began a cautious, provisional assessment among Updikeans about which of those “more than sixty books” would remain after the inevitable historical shakedown. The Rabbit Quartet and the stories, most agree; beyond that, there is little unanimity.

If Couples (1968) is his most famous single title, it is also his most contested; opponents might argue that The Maples Stories add up to a swifter, sparer analysis of American marriage in the same period. There are votes for Of the Farm (1965) and The Coup (1978); my own would go to Roger’s Version ( 1986). The man himself said (in 1985, anyway) that his own “particular favorite” was The Centaur (1963). Updike’s later work was rather undervalued, and at times insultingly reviewed; perhaps In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) will stay the course, or Terrorist (2006). The latter book has as much authorial boldness as Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), even if both share the same unwillingness to push the narrative to its logical conclusion (the Roth would thus end with the setting-up of the first American concentration camp, the Updike with the successful blowing-up of the Lincoln Tunnel). As Lorrie Moore put it in these pages, Updike is “arguably our greatest writer without a single great novel”*—a matter of particularity rather than any dishonor.

Updike’s stories were generally written closer to his own life than his novels; and his last collection, My Father’s Tears, contains numerous familiar tropes, set-ups, and situations. The infant crouched on carpet or linoleum, surrounded by crayons and mammoth adults; the child of a quadrilateral household (two parents, two grandparents) that surrounds and protects him; the small boy losing his mother’s hand in a department store and wetting his pants (this occurs twice in the present collection); the artistic yet temperamental mother and the philistine yet stoical father; the key move from town (the father’s locale) to farm (the mother’s); the necessary escape from family to university, then professional life and marriage; the fathering of four children; the period of a year or so living alone in Boston; divorce, followed by a second, childless marriage; the young man with psoriasis who grows into the elderly man with sun-damaged skin; the adult whose stutter returns in times of crisis or embarrassment; the serial attender of high school reunions; the grandfather with a tendency to get lost, whether in foreign cities or his own once-familiar, now forever-changed home environment. These set-ups are so consistent that when, in “Blue Light” (ex-psoriatic grandfather with sun-damaged skin), Updike proposes a protagonist with a massive three wives and a measly three children, we rear back not so much in disbelief as mild offense. Think we can’t see through that ? Anyway, three plus three or two plus four, it’s still six, isn’t it?


At the same time, the very existence of such solid tropes will make Updikeans hope that their man gets a nonreductivist biographer; it is what he does with his givens, not the identifiability of their origin, that counts. Thus, “Blue Light” starts with Fritz Fleischer’s visit to a dermatologist who advises a new treatment to flush out precancerous cells. Yet each establishing detail proposes the story’s wider concerns—with damage and its lingering consequences (“the skin remembers,” Fleischer’s previous dermatologist has told him), the infliction of pain, genetic inheritance and aging (with pre-cancerous cells, “‘maturing’ seemed to be a euphemism for death”). It spins out into a story about “personal archaeology” (as another title has it), about memory and family, innocence and age, selfishness and its consequences. The last two sentences stitch the story closed with a neat suture:

He could not imagine what his grandchildren would do in the world, how they would earn their keep. They were immature cells, centers of potential pain.

The younger writer is avid for the world and its description; the older writer, while still avid for description, is more suspicious about the world, both what it is and whom it might be for: “It has taken old age,” the narrator of “The Full Glass” reflects, “to make me realize that the world exists for young people.” But the older writer has also realized the extent and limitations of his own myth kitty, and learned how best to eke it out. Those early memories which famously come back in old age are too precious to be wasted on just a single- layer, hey-look-what-I’ve-just-remembered story.

The older writer (well, an older writer like Updike) has also learned how to move through time, a much harder task in the short story than in the novel. Not just the technicality of fast-forward and rewind, freeze-frame and wide shot, but the psychology of how memories of quick youth fit in with—or disturb—the slower travails of age, how we live not just in the present indicative but also the passive, the conditional, and the subjunctive (“German Lessons”), how guilt works in the long haul, how unexpectedly some things still move us while others trigger nothing, and how far we can admit that our deepest and most companionable certainties were frequently wrong.

Updike’s world often appears a superficially stable place, of mainly white, mainly middle-class suburbia, of houses and families and children and golf and drinking and, of course, adultery—that most conventional way to rise above the conventional, in Nabokov’s phrase. But just as Hemingway, the supposed hymner of masculine courage, writes best about cowardice, so Updike, delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight. For the small, carpet-level boy with the dominant mother in “The Guardians,” “crayoning was Lee’s way of getting away from her.” Later will come the actual, necessary escape from the family (see the great early story “Flight”), an action usually leading to marriage and a new family. That would have been the end of it for the generation of Updike’s parents: in a pre-Elvis, pre-pill, still-puritan America, escape was theoretically possible but rarely feasible. For the next generation, it is not just an occasional dream but a constant possibility—though never a simple one. Little Lee, for instance, is comforted by the fact that his parents and grandparents do not die until he is “safely away” at college.


This is, perhaps, the underlying, paradoxical dream of Updike’s characters: to be away, and yet to be safe. The Rabbit Quartet is bookended by Harry Angstrom’s two instinctive southerly fugues: his opening panicked drive from home and family and life in the ’55 Ford in Rabbit, Run (1960); (“The title can be read as a piece of advice,” Updike noted in his preface to the one-volume edition of the Quartet); and the mirror trip in Rabbit at Rest (1990), Harry’s closing, migratory trek in the Toyota Celica down to Florida to find his place to die. Updike’s epitomal marrieds, the Maples, try the easiest escape from marriage, adultery; then the second one, divorce. But what lies beyond? A second marriage, perhaps further dreams of leaving, and so on, until life’s final escape, into death. If Lee, at the end of “The Guardians,” finds temporary consolation in the fact that his DNA at least promises him longevity, Martin Fairchild, in “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” knows that in cosmological terms, “We are riding an aimless explosion to nowhere.”

What can’t be escaped from, and runs all through the collection of stories, is memory. The escapee must always return, mentally or physically, if not both. In “The Road Home,” David Kern (to whom most tropes apply) goes back to his mother’s farmland and his father’s townscape, places from which “only he” among all his family “had escaped.” He has the hesitant nostalgia of the returnee, and also the guilt: if the place has changed unacceptably, then he himself, by his willful absence, is complicit in its decline. The past is somewhere you get lost in, literally and figuratively: your memory is partial, and the place itself has changed. And so have you: Kern, a city slicker worrying that rain-sodden fields might dirty his shoes and pants, makes the discovery that “ancestral soil” for him “was just mud.” And sometimes not even that. The boy who once humiliatingly sold strawberries on the roadside of Route 14 discovers how they are grown today: under season-defying plastic, four feet off the ground, and hydroponically, with nutrients trickled in by hose. If the “ancestral” has lost its meaning, so too has the “soil.”


Martha Updike

John Updike, 1997; photograph by Martha Updike

The final paradox and contradiction of escape is laid out in “Free.” Henry and Leila, small-town adulterers who never made the break together, meet up again in their sixties. Henry’s wife has died, and Leila, now out of her third unsatisfactory marriage, is living in a Florida condo with “metal furniture and mall-bought watercolors.” Visiting her there after thirty years—and an hour overdue, since Henry, a true late-Updike male, is disoriented by directions—he finds her wrinkled from the sun, sharper-tongued and more vulgar than he remembered, sassy rather than cute. He is also disconcerted that there is both more time and more conversation than back in the old days, when “fuck and run had been his style.” These changed circumstances make him indecisive, and when he defeatedly suggests getting back to his hotel, Leila has to coax him into bed with “You were always getting back…but you’re free now.” Yet with time comes not just memory but reassessment. Afterward, as he prepares for a long drive into a setting sun, Henry asks, “Well, what is free?…I guess it’s always been a state of mind. Looking back at us—maybe that was as free as things get.”

Here come the desolating consolations of age. Escape may not lead to freedom; the skin remembers; the body rebels. Even adultery, that old reliable, becomes less commanding an impulse, easily loses its thrall. In “Outage,” a near infidelity during a power failure is comically headed off when the electricity returns, house lights suddenly blaze, and domestic machinery begins distractingly to hum and bleep. In “The Apparition,” Henry Milford, a retired professor in his seventies, half-bored by a cultural tour of India, falls into “a default alliance of willful ignorance” with a younger married woman. But—perhaps because of a lifetime spent teaching “statistics and probabilities”—he is satisfied with merely savoring “lust’s folly” from a distance; the pleasures of the flesh being illustrated instead by a temple’s erotic statuary.

Not all is retrospect: “Varieties of Religious Experience” (first published in the Atlantic in November 2002) is Updike’s initial response to September 11, and thus a partial precursor to Terrorist. Dan Kellogg, a sixty-three-year-old Episcopalian staying with his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, realizes that there is no God the instant he watches the South Tower fall. He is puzzling over the oily smoke from the buildings “when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silver rippling noise.” It is a comparison few except Updike might have noticed, let alone dared write; and if the simile isn’t really confirmed by the footage—the tower’s cladding would be its sheath, which didn’t drop separately to reveal the building’s body; further, as the building collapsed, smoke rose to conceal its downfall—it is, again, not a gaudy one-off, but an image with thematic resonance.

That there can be beauty (and, for some, eroticism) in destruction is unarguable; and this moment links directly to the second episode of the story, a flashback to one of the hijackers drunkenly expounding his zealotry in a Florida strip club. After the imagined viewpoints of two victims (a man in the World Trade Center, a woman aboard the fourth plane pleading with the Lord for mercy), we rejoin Kellogg, six months later, to find he has now lost his atheism as he had previously lost his belief. Why? Because human consciousness always insists on narrative and meaning, and so, for him, on faith. The story is in part about levels of belief—like levels of a skyscraper—from atheistic ground zero to a space close to the invisible godhead.

In one of his final poems, “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth,” Updike addresses both his old friends and his fundamental source material:

Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs,
all there in Shillington, its trolley cars
and little factories, cornfields and trees,
leaf fires, snowflakes, pumpkins, valentines.

Corroboration (if any were needed) comes in the title story of the final collection, “My Father’s Tears,” in which Jim (home escaper/father of four/twice married/high school reunionist) is told by his second wife that his escape from his background has only ever been partial:

Sylvia…recognizes that I have never really left Pennsylvania, that it is where the self I value is stored, however infrequently I check on its condition.

Much of this volume may be seen as a variegated checking on that early, continuing soul. Jim’s time and place—postwar Alton—contained two iconic buildings: the old station where “the tall-backed waiting benches were as dignified as church pews” and “the stately Carnegie-endowed library two blocks down Franklin Street.” Both, of course, were locations for escape. Also, “both had been built for eternity, when railroads and books looked to be with us forever.” Yet within a decade Alton’s station, “like railroad stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up,” awaiting its obliteration.

Implications about the Death of the Book, here merely implied, are pessimistically clarified in the poem “The Author Observes His Birthday, 2005”:

A life poured into words— apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder…

Perhaps; but there is way too much vitality in Updike (and in life, and literature, and the maligned book) for that. “My Father’s Tears” cuts swiftly to the upcountry Vermont farmhouse belonging to Jim’s first wife’s family, where as a young husband he once observed a rare, ordinary phenomenon:

The lone bathroom was a long room, its plaster walls and wooden floor both bare, that was haunted by a small but intense rainbow, which moved around the walls as the sun in the course of the day glinted at a changing angle off the bevelled edge of the mirror on the medicine cabinet. When we troubled to heat up enough water on the kerosene stove for a daylight bath, the prismatically generated rainbow kept the bather company; it quivered and bobbed when footsteps or a breath of wind made the house tremble.

For Jim this “Ariel-like phenomenon” has an extra resonance, since it was here, in the farmhouse, that his then wife first became pregnant: “This microscopic event deep within my bride became allied in my mind with the little rainbow low on the bathroom wall, our pet imp of refraction.”

When Updike and John Cheever appeared together on The Dick Cavett Show in 1981 (their only joint TV appearance), the true fact of mutual admiration made for untypically quiet television: Updike at one point mused that Cavett must be regretting not having booked Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal instead. When Cavett pushed these two writers, whom ignorance sometimes lumped together, to describe their differences, Cheever said that Updike was the only writer he knew who gave a sense of American lives being performed in an environment of a grandeur that escaped them. In reply and counterpraise, Updike emphasized that Cheever was a transcendentalist, feeling and conveying a radiance which he, Updike, was unable to feel and convey. Comparatively, this is the case; though in and by himself Updike is, if not a transcendentalist, at least a transformationist, looking for the rainbow in the bathroom, the imp of refraction, seeking, as he put it in the introduction to The Early Stories, “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

In his very last story, “The Full Glass” (published in The New Yorker on May 26, 2008), a former insurance salesman turned floor sander, now approaching eighty, reviews his life through the prism of water (the sea, the body’s constitution, human tears, the glass of the stuff he needs to swallow his “life-prolonging pills”). Most people tend to see life as a glass that is, according to temperament, half-full or half-empty. This (for once unnamed) first-person narrator prefers to retrospect in terms of “moments of that full-glass feeling.” The story’s last sentence, in which the narrator stands back and looks at himself—or Updike stands back and looks at the narrator, or Updike stands back and looks at himself—runs:

If I can read this strange old guy’s mind aright, he’s drinking a toast to the visible world, his impending disappearance from it be damned.

Impossible not to think of and feel for Updike as he tapped out that sentence and then added his last full stop, his fictional endpoint. Impossible equally not to honor and thank him with a reader’s raised glass, full to the brim—though preferably not with water.