Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike, R.I.P.

John Updike died yesterday at the age of 76 in Massachusetts, his home state (and mine).

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the Times called Updike "kaleidoscopically gifted" and I suppose that's as near justice as the English language can give to one of its masters.

Updike's best-known novel Rabbit, Run changed my life when I first read it at 16. It wasn't the plot, a sordid, wistful, tragic, existential journey, that captivated me. It wasn't the hero, Rabbit Angstrom, a tragicomic child-man coming of age in his 30s. It was the sumptuous prose, with little phrase-gems embedded in every page, which I heavily underlined in blue pen and continued to flip back to, reverently, even after I had finished the book.

When I come across a paragraph like the following, I consider a book has paid for itself:

Growing sleepy, Rabbit stops before midnight at a roadside cafe for coffee. Somehow, though he can't put his finger on the difference, he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men sitting in zippered jackets in booths three to a girl, the girls with orange hair hanging like wiggly seaweed or loosely bound with gold barrettes like pirate treasure. At the counter middleaged couples in overcoats bunch their faces forward into the straws of gray icecream sodas. In the hush his entrance creates, the excessive courtesy the weary woman behind the counter shows him amplifies his strangeness. He orders coffee quietly and studies the rim of the cup to steady the sliding in his stomach. He had thought, he had read, that from shore to shore all America was the same. He wonders, Is it just these people I'm outside or is it all America?-Rabbit Run, John Updike, 1960.

Updike turned prose into a tactile experience, uncomfortably and exquisitely so. On re-reading, the words haven't lost any of the wonder they held for me when I was a teenager. I picked up another of his novels, Couples,
a few years later, and although it was a bit too--have I already said "sordid?"--sordid for me to see through to the finish, the images and descriptions were similarly wondrous.

Not to belabor a simple offering of praise, Updike made a profound impression on me. My imagination owes him a debt of gratitude.


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