The Many Stylings of John Updike

The most wonderful thing about John Updike, who died Tuesday of cancer at 76, was that there was an Updike for anyone who loved to read. If you craved realist fiction about the American middle class, you could go to his series of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the small town Pennsylvania basketball star turned Toyota dealer. If you wanted quiet, beautifully written stories about married life, there were the stories about the Maples, a Massachusetts couple that Updike observed through a long string of short stories. Craving something steamier? Try "Couples," his 1968 bestseller about marital infidelities in suburban small towns. There were also comic novels about witches, a novel of social unrest in Africa, a novel about a Muslim terrorist, a retelling of the saga of Tristan and Isolde and a prequel to "Hamlet." There was a play about President James Buchanan and three novels about Updike's alter ego, a Jewish novelist named Bech. If you got tired of fiction, there were nine collections of poetry and goodness knows how many collections of his criticism—that would be literary criticism and art criticism. There were a couple of collections of just plain old essays, and a book about golf and a book about himself. He was, in other words, more literary conglomerate than author, something like General Motors in its heyday, turning out small cars, big cars, trucks and everything in between.

The knock on Updike was that he had a gorgeous prose style and not much to say with it. When it came to his fiction, I tended to agree. It wasn't that his novels were bad—just that they didn't speak to me. His nonfiction was something else. My reaction to his literary criticism was pure professional jealousy. My reaction to his other nonfiction work was simply admiration and, in at least one case, outright adoration.

As a teenager –don't ask me why—I bought a paperback copy of his nonfiction collection called "Assorted Prose," which contains "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," his account of Ted Williams's last game at Fenway Park in 1960. That was the first piece of his I ever read, and it made me hungry for more. But when I tried the rest of the articles in that book, they didn't measure up. The same thing happened when I tried "Rabbit, Run" and some of the short stories. This is not because there is anything particularly wrong with those other works. It's just that the Ted Williams story is that good. I think it's probably the single best story I've ever read about baseball, but it had been a while since I last read it, so before I wrote this, I went back and checked. I found nothing to contradict my original judgment. If anything, it was better than I remembered.

Here's how Updike describes Williams's last at-bat in the 8th inning against an Oriole pitcher named Jack Fisher:

"Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

In October 2008, in one of the last interviews he gave, Updike said two things that stuck out. First, talking about his choice of profession, he mentioned that if he had not watched his mother trying to write short stories while he was growing up, that he thought it unlikely that he would have chosen the same profession. Then the conversation shifted to his father. "My father was a scared man," he told the interviewer. "And he communicated his anxiety to me, so that perhaps more than most writers I wanted to make a practical go of it. And my career was eminently practical. I fastened on to this magazine, the New Yorker, that seemed to me to be the top of its class and I tried to get into it, and I did get into it. It was kind of calculating. Kind of crass.

"But I framed it to myself as a kind of altruistic ambition. Most jobs in the world were competitive, you had to push someone aside, but writing and art I thought weren't like that. You brought something new into the world without displacing anything else. To entertain people, or to hold out a standard of beauty or to even inform them seemed so self-evidently out of what my father called the rat race. Dog eat dog, in his phrase. He had a despairing picture of the capitalist world, as losers in that system tend to do."

He was as wryly, darkly Olympian about his father as he was about his characters. Not that he was cold, exactly, or unfeeling. It was the frightening clarity of his judgment that was so shocking and admirable. And then he spoke about his family, about children and then grandchildren: "I feel badly for people who for one reason or another haven't had a family life. Having children was something I wanted to do. It's a kind of creation that runs deeper maybe than even artistic creation. But at the same time I think I'm more the father of my books than of my children. My children are their own selves, whereas my books, however imagined or concocted, are something I've produced by myself. So therefore they must be, or speak for, me."

A man who speaks with that level of self-awareness gives his eulogists the day off.