He Gave ‘the Mundane Its Beautiful Due’


by Adam Begley
Harper, 558 pp., $29.99
Nancy Crampton
John Updike, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, 1987

When John Updike was a small boy living at 117 Philadelphia Avenue, Shillington, Berks County, Pennsylvania, with his parents and his maternal grandparents, he would stand on a chair every day after lunch to reach up and get at the “little metal Recipes box, with floral decorations and a red lid,” which stood on top of the zinc-lined, wooden icebox in the kitchen, and which held the family’s cash. He would take six cents from it—a nickel and a penny—so he could buy a Tastykake at Kieffer’s on the way back to his elementary school. This ritual is recorded, with minuscule variations, in his 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness, and in several of the stories about his childhood.

It may have been a particularly tender memory because it was associated with a growing unease about where the “meagre” supply of cash was coming from and the realization that his father was “borrowing” it from the sports day receipts of the school where he taught: “My Father on the Verge of Disgrace” is one of the stories in which the anecdote appears. But the essence of the memory is pleasure: the pleasure of the treat, of eating the Tastykake as he is walking along the street “instead of sitting down and being told to have good manners.” Like many of Updike’s childhood details, it shines with a sense of security and realness. “If there was a meaning to existence, I was closest to it here.” It is a part of his Proustian memory hoard.

The recipe box and the Tastykake don’t figure in Adam Begley’s admirable biography, but not every tiny fragment of Updike’s stuff can be cited: there’s enough of it for a hundred biographies. The accumulation and dispersal of life’s things is one of Updike’s great subjects. He returns in his fiction to the places he has left: that first home in Shillington (“Olinger”); the nearby decaying industrial town of Reading (“Alton,” or Rabbit’s “Brewer”); the sandstone farmhouse, his mother’s childhood home in Plowville (“Firetown”), to which she moved the family when John was thirteen; the marital homes where his children grew up, in Ipswich, alias “Tarbox.” As he grows old, he becomes the last surviving witness:

The coal bin in the cellar, the shelves of homemade preserves, the walnut icebox, the black stone sink, the warping kitchen linoleum in the pattern of little interlocking bricks…only [he] was left to remember any of this.

The pathos of past things is one of Updike’s most poignant subjects. Rabbit Angstrom is always listing them as his town changes; and the stories are full of them. In “Still of Some Use,” the narrator is clearing out the attic of the abandoned marital home, full of “forgotten, broken games”: “Now no one wanted to play.” It’s like the poem “My Children at the Dump,” where…

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