intensely trivial

Lament for John Updike

John Updike died this past Tuesday. I found out today at the library, when I strolled past a display of his novels and a little poster with his photo and dates. I looked twice to make sure it wasn’t just his birthday or something. No, he really did die. I want to cry.
(How did I miss this? Why did this not make the main headlines on this week? I am switching to a different news service if misses this kind of news — which I’m sure they didn’t completely, but this is big enough to put at the top of the page.)
In these five days since his death, the obituarists and tribute writers have already composed eloquent sentences and paragraphs about him; most of them know more about his writing than I do. But in short, John Updike was one of the great modern American writers. He painted a flawless picture of middle-class America in all its imperfection. His characters aren’t virtuous or beautiful, but his writing is beautiful. He’s been criticized for having merely style and possibly no substance. No one would disagree that he has style. However, inexpert though I am, I would argue that his writing has substance as well. It is worthwhile to read something that forces you to acknowledge the tawdry truth about yourself as a human being.
I’m going to steal some words from Paul Theroux that express well how I think about John Updike:

First of all, his generosity, his wide reading, his scrupulous description, and the joy that was obvious in his writing—he was someone who was both supremely confident and yet had humility. Trained as a painter, Updike kept that unblinking eye his whole life. He was American literature’s great noticer, and his work was always a reminder of the texture, the detail of life: of flesh, of the drape of clothes, of a way of speaking, a quality of light. Two works, neglected by the obituarists, stay in my mind: a lovely essay on the experiences of being barefoot on Martha’s Vineyard, and the utterly persuasive Africa of his novel “The Coup.” He helped us see. I regard him as a master, appreciative in ways that enlarged his vision and made his writing sing.

And in case you haven’t read any Updike, here are the beginning lines of the Rabbit quartet:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.

And here are the ending lines, as Rabbit is dying:

“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

Even though it might take me the rest of my life to read them, I don’t know if all the words Updike wrote are enough for me.


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  1. * t'ilia says:

    I’m sorry–I figured you knew. I saw it on yahoo news and my google news feed the day he passed. (In case you needed recommendations for a new news feed.)

    Posted 9 years, 3 months ago
  2. * manhattandoula says:

    That’s OK. I said the same thing to Dan, and he said the same thing to me. I think I’ll be checking Google News more now. 🙂

    Posted 9 years, 3 months ago

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