John Updike's Final Chapter

Whether he was writing about sex, golf, or life in a small town, the fecund mind who gave the world Rabbit was never at rest. But why did readers seem to fall out of love with America’s everyman of letters?

01.29.09 6:50 AM ET

Of few writers can it be said that they embody Henry James’ description of the artist as “a person on whom nothing is lost.” Most writers have curiosity about some things but not about others; their interests are usually obsessive and thus preclusive. They may wish to know how memory evolves, as did Proust in Swann’s Way; or how football works, as did Frederick Exley in A Fan’s Notes; or how real estate is sold, as did Jane Smiley in Good Faith. Once in a while, however, a writer comes along who has an omnivorous appetite for description and the bric-a-brac of knowledge—who is at ease in the imaginative as well as critical realms, in the visual as well as literary arts, who is as intrigued by dashboards as he is by women’s pinkish interiors. Such a writer was John Updike, from his earliest fiction and reviews up until his final essay, “ The Writer in Winter,” which appeared in the November/December issue of AARP magazine. (No snob, he. Impossible to imagine other writers of his stature—Philip Roth, for instance—stooping to reflect for this publication’s “Life Lessons” column.)

To be sure, he remains one of our most unabashedly heterosexual writers, reveling in the taste of femaleness.

In this piece Updike observed, with his scrupulous eye, that when he looked back at his prose from 20 or 30 years ago “the quality I admire and fear to have lost is its carefree bounce, its snap, its exuberant air of slight excess. The author, in his boyish innocence, is calling, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, upon unseen powers—the prodigious potential of this flexible language’s vast vocabulary.”

Indeed, with the exception of Nabokov, no writer inheres in the details quite as much as Updike. His almost OCD compulsion to translate everything he saw, heard, appreciated, and disapproved of (including much of contemporary life) into honed, even finicky words on the page may render him too promiscuous a talent for true gravitas, as James Wood once suggested. Or it may simply underline the way in which he takes in the chaos and clatter of the world with an attentive and unfailingly courteous vision. What is certain is that his metaphors usually succeed in what they set out to do—widening the lens rather than simply calling attention to themselves as leaps of associative derring-do in the way of many younger writers. What is also certain is that, much like Cheever, Updike is a sucker for poignancy, for the sense of “irrecoverable loss.” In 1976’s “ Here Come the Maples,” a quintessentially Updikean story in its theme (the failure of marital intimacy) and tone (elegiac), Richard Maple appreciates his wife, Joan, most fully as he is driving her to divorce court: “All those years, he had blamed her for everything—for the traffic jam in Central Square, for the blasts of noise on the mail boat, for the difference in the levels of their beds. No longer: he had set her free, free from fault. She was to him as Gretel to Hänsel, a kindred creature moving beside him down a path while birds behind them ate the bread crumbs.”

In keeping with his sense of decorum, his apparent disinterest in ordinary celebrity (“Fame is a mask that eats into the face,” he wrote in Self-Consciousness) and his wish to keep chosen aspects of his life private, the news of Updike’s death at 76 from lung cancer on Tuesday came as a shock. Like many fans, I last caught sight of him on November 12 on Charlie Rose (his sixteenth appearance!), where he was promoting his latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick. He conversed with Rose in his rueful and polished style about growing old and continuing to write amidst diminished expectations, about the continuing need to write because that was what one did. He had seemed the very epitome of witful aging, his intellectual energy blazing out from slanted brown eyes and his impish grin firmly in place. All of which led me to wonder after the fact who outside of his family had known that he was harboring a fatal disease, that he was about to go off into the gloaming (one of his favorite words), leaving behind him a staggering—nay, Victorian—legacy of 61 books, including the much-lauded Rabbit tetralogy (two of which received the Pulitzer Prize), the Bech trilogy, nine volumes of poetry, numerous collections of book reviews and short stories, two books on art, and a collection of golf writing. Watching him that evening, I was struck not by the aura of obliviousness and entitlement that presumably led David Foster Wallace to dub him a “Great Male Narcissist” or by the aura of senescence that led Tom Wolfe to christen him one of his “Three Stooges” (along with Norman Mailer and John Irving) in a Harper’s essay. “He's an old man, he's my age, and he doesn't have the energy left to be doing something about the year 2020 in a town north of Boston," Wolfe noted, referring to Updike's 1997 novel, Toward the End of Time. I was struck, rather, by the opposite qualities: by Updike’s lively engagement, his lack of swagger (unless an intensity of will qualifies as such) and an almost imperceptible air of bewilderment as to how and when he and the American reading public had parted ways.

Tributes have appeared and will no doubt continue to appear, attesting to Updike’s dazzling gifts, sexual candor (which, in its anthropological focus, inspired many an embarrassed titter in its day) and pre-eminent standing among modern American writers. But the truth is, the world outside the literati (and sometimes including them) no longer much cared after a certain point—say, 1990—what Updike had to say. He would always be reviewed with reflexive respect and his name would come up as a perennial Nobel contender (notwithstanding Cynthia Ozick’s conviction that his American brand of small town-Protestantism kept him out of the game), but somewhere along the way—somewhere between the marginalization of suburban angst and the dawn of multiculturalism—the fizz had gone out of Updike’s name. The news he was bringing was no longer cutting-edge but seemed steeped in nostalgia for lost cultural signposts. His vaunted cosmopolitanism began to feel dated, stuck in a moment when the de haut en bas tone of The New Yorker editorials still prevailed. He began to seem like a man who always wore a hat to work.

What is odd is that underneath his upright churchgoing persona and paterfamilial embrace of domestic convention—underneath what David Foster Wallace insisted was an immovable solipsism—Updike evinced more interest in the “Other,” as he/she has come to be called, than most of his contemporaries. He was always forsaking his natural territory—disgruntled marriages, derailed desire and crumbling Wasp traditions—for darker and less parochial matters, for the lure of foreignness, be it Jewishness ( Bech), militant blackness ( Rabbit Redux) or Third World upheavals and misadventure ( The Coup, Brazil). In Terrorist, his second-to-last novel, he bravely and not always successfully attempted to inhabit the perspective of a radicalized Muslim adolescent named Ahmad. Although the novel more than anything gave Updike a chance to rail at the materialist, sex-obsessed culture of a decaying New Jersey factory town under cover of Ahmad—“ Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair”—it was also an effort at understanding the intractably alien, those who “belonged to the margins of the Christian world, the comic others in their funny clothes.”

In the end, John Updike probably shone most brightly as a miniaturist—as a writer of stories and essays, where his supremely conscious, sibylline prose had the chance to chew more than it bit off and thus feature him at his mimetic best. I still remember the excitement with which I devoured Pigeon Feathers and stories like “ The Fairy Godfathers” and “ The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals.” To be sure, he remains one of our most unabashedly heterosexual writers, reveling in the taste of femaleness. I wish I had had the chance to meet him when I was writing for The New Yorker, the magazine that was his home for over fifty years. Above all, I believe he never really got his due, in part because he was so prolific for so long that the emergence of a new book seemed unremarkable; in part because he never wrote the one great, defining novel; and in part again because his kind of lapidary prose and American boosterism went out of style. Then, too, behind his witty discernment one could sense a churlishness gradually creeping in, especially over the last two decades.

Still, the final verdict has not yet been handed down. In June, a new collection of Updike stories, My Father’s Tears And Other Stories, is being published—and for all one knows there may be more to come. There are ideal readers yet to discover him and long-standing admirers yet to make the case for him as a rare and generous and altogether seductive voice.

RELATED: Remembering John Updike Through His Obsessions

Daphne Merkin is a cultural critic who was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle.  She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.