Master of details made readers feel what he felt

The Baltimore Sun

The Rabbit is finally at rest.

Author John Updike, who died Tuesday of lung cancer at age 76, frequently referred to his most indelible character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, as his alter-ego.

In four novels - Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest - Updike chronicled his blue-collar protagonist adrift and disillusioned in mid-20th-century America. The books begin respectively in 1959, 1969, 1979 and 1988, and encapsulate the conflicts of their previous decades: the disenchantment with the American dream of the '50s, the Vietnam War and the hippie movement in the '60s, the conspicuous consumption and hedonism of the '70s, and the rise of drugs and AIDS in the '80s.

In many ways, Updike couldn't have seemed less like Rabbit Angstrom. The former was a much-lauded author who won the Pulitzer Price twice, for the final two novels in the Rabbit cycle. The latter's life peaked in high school, when he was a star on the basketball team; he failed at two subsequent careers, as a Linotype operator and Toyota dealer.

But Rabbit's preoccupations were Updike's, from Rabbit's love of golf to his inchoate spiritual yearnings. Most of all, author and character were voluptuaries, who relished not just food and sex but also the sights, sounds, smells and textures of everyday life.

Updike was perhaps the contemporary author best able to make his readers taste a macadamia nut furred with salt, or bring into focus a car parked the wrong way on a street, "its grid grinning at him."

Or here is Updike, in a Christmas sketch, describing fashionable footwear:

"This year's high heels do not jounce the face but wobble the ankles, so that women walking have the tremulous radiance of burning candles as, step by step, they quiver in and out of balance."

The tremulous radiance of burning candles. Has anyone, ever, seen that motion more clearly?

It was precisely this vividness that provoked some critics, wrongly, to dub Updike's writing "feminine." The argument went that Updike was primarily concerned with the body and not the mind. Such a literary eminence grise as the critic Harold Bloom dismissed Updike as "a minor novelist with a major style."

Such indictments outraged Updike's legions of fans.

"John Updike was the best prose stylist in the American language since Henry James - and they called James a sissy, too," says Jerome Klinkowitz, a literature professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who has written extensively on Updike.

"I don't think Updike minded being called a writer of the surface. Some of the nicest parts of life are on the surface.

"What Updike did was more like peeling an onion. What's in the center of an onion? Nothing. You've exhausted the onion once you've exhausted its surface. But that doesn't mean we want to throw the onion out of our diets and eat unflavored food."

Updike's preoccupation with the physical world might well have cost him the Nobel Prize. Last October, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel jury, sneered at American writers as "insular and isolated." Unlike their European counterparts, Engdahl said, Americans don't write about deep moral issues, "and that ignorance is constraining."

It probably didn't help that Updike thumbed his nose at the Nobel academy by awarding the literary world's top honor to another of his characters, the womanizing Jewish-American novelist Henry Bech. In a short story called "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden," Updike satirizes the entire process, down to the acceptance speech.

But if critics were ambivalent about Updike, the public adored him. Updike had a rabbit's proclivity, publishing nearly a book a year for 50 years. He not only wrote novels and short stories, but poems, a play and critical essays.

"It's amazing how many of his books remain in print," Klinkowitz says. "If you walk into a bookstore, you may find three or four by Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, but there will be 15 by Updike."

If the critics failed to give Updike his due, it may have been because they confused the superficial with the trivial. To say that a book's pleasures are to be found in a detailed depiction of a little boy's neck gleaming "like one more clean object in the kitchen among the cups and plates and chromium knobs and aluminum cake-making receptacles on shelves scalloped with glossy oilcloth" is not at all the same thing as saying that neck, and that kitchen, have no meaning.

The only way we have of knowing the world is through our five senses. Every deep thought, every moral insight that human beings have ever devised is, at its roots, a reaction to a specific physical phenomenon. To read Updike is to expand, however temporarily, our own powers of perception. Sounds are sharper. Metaphors spring more readily to mind.

John Updike made his readers larger people. He enhanced our capacities. And, what could matter more, what could be a more profound gift, than that?

Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler never met Updike, though they shared the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and the same extraordinary editor, Judith Jones.

Nonetheless, Tyler says in an e-mail: "I had a real sense of shock and loss when I heard he'd died. John Updike's writing was so intensely detailed, I always felt that I was living his life alongside him while I was reading him. Now that he's dead, a part of me half expects to be living through that experience with him as well. Can you imagine what a vivid report he could send us from the afterlife?"

If only he would.

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