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Always faithful to sex and style

Rabbit at Rest
John Updike’s Eternal Erection

If John Updike had been run over by a laundry truck 10 years ago, his reputation as the chief eulogist of postwar America would have been secure, unsullied by tenacity’s catch: decline. But he kept writing, hiding his age behind those gorgeous metaphors you could hang in his beloved Museum of Modern Art (“He smelled to himself of old age, of wet straw gone fusty, unforked in the stable”) and the rhythm section of his sentences, which forgave their often racy indifference to substance. He was 76 when he died a few days ago, but until then he still wrote with the energy of a 50-year-old looking forward to his prime. His characters, God knows, still copulated, no matter how decrepit they were, with the slutty energy of 20-somethings. Procreation took creative forms in Updike’s hands.


“In a time when books are churned out like chunky little tabloids, full of fake urgency, and a few months later shredded into insulation without a qualm,” he once wrote about the last book written by French author Roland Barthes, who was hit and prematurely killed by a laundry truck at 64 (as opposed to being hit by a truck at 84, when it’s more like a jackpot) Barthes’ work “serves to remind us what a book can be—elegant and simple in production, serious and delightful in content, a binding-together of reflections we have learned to call ‘lucid,’ a demonstration of the mind’s play and a re-exitation of our joy in the world.” Updike was, as always, referring at least a little bit to himself and his own joys, his work having been either joyful or infuriatingly less so, depending on the reader’s demographics.

He was, for me, the first American writer I loved without reserve, reading him in my 20s to learn my adoptive language as much as to acculturate myself to my adoptive country. All that whitish anxiety and self-indulgence and faith-based cheating seemed to explain the vanity of the Reagan years I’d landed in. In retrospect, I might have done better with Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov, whose affections for America, and especially the American language, were more continental, whereas Updike was strictly suburban (even when he wrote about a fake African kingdom or an even faker Brazilian Tristan and Iseult). By the early 1990s, and my early 30s, Updike became less of a love and more of a duty—a sort of intellectual first marriage on the rocks. I fornicated with Philip Roth but kept reading Updike, out of sheer admiration for his endurance, though Gore Vidal was onto something: “Certainly all the words he uses are there on the page, but what they stand for is not.”

And Updike just kept writing.

His Rabbit quartet, “Couples,” “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” his ziggurat of short stories on top of a solid mass of criticism—probably his most enduring work—plus a bunch of poems and writings on golf (those two genres could be confused as one) begs elevation to the pantheon of American greats. He gave up coffee and cigarettes years ago, alcohol, too, for the blood pressure, as if to ensure immortality through accumulation even though since “Self-Consciousness” in 1989 (his wonderful but, in retrospect, stingy memoir, now that we won’t have another), he’s been giving off observations like this, which apply to his later books: “When I get out of bed in the morning, my own smell surprises me: stale flesh, warmed over.”

Always in counterpoint there were the whiffs of his perverse little fancies, as he described them in “Toward the End of Time” (1997): “The young fill a house with the smell of heavy late-morning sleep, and of nightsweats of fear as they confront life in all its branching possibility and need for decision. Menstrual fluid, epidermal oils, semen—all such effluvia in overflowing supply.” (Also a fine metaphor for the Clinton years.) There was the unreadable “Seek My Face” in 2002, the meditatively spent stories still appearing in the New Yorker, and the embarrassing sexual seethe of “Villages,” his 2004 re-run of a life of literary soft porn, where we were not quite treated to lines like this: “Two kinds of women existed in the world, Owen perceived: those with whom you have slept and those, a cruelly disproportionate but reducible number, with whom you haven’t.” And then “Terrorist” in 2006, where the old Updike standard of horny piety met the new American dread of suicide bombing. That novel, like the Bush years it inflected, could have used a laundry truck. But Updike kept writing.

When Anthony Burgess, an even more prolific and inventive—and less self-absorbed—writer, published the last volume of his memoir, at 73, he called it “You’ve Had Your Time,” then kicked off three years later of lung cancer, like Updike. For all his staleness, Updike never got around to conceding, which is just as admirable anyway. His death was that rarity he scorned in his own books, and now has the last laugh: a plot twist.

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