Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike 1932-2009

The amazing writer John Updike has passed on. He was sexist (like most men of his era) but he was also quite wonderful. Still, he specialized in lines like: Men are all heart and Women are all body. I don't know who has the brains. God maybe.

We also had a common ancestor, which made us something like 9th cousins. The ancestor was named Opdycke, from the Netherlands. Apparently, I was doing genealogy at the same time Updike was, and I read of our common ancestor in one of his essays. I was delighted to learn we were related.

There is a harrowing sequence in Rabbit Run (1960), wherein Janice accidentally drowns her infant child while she is drunk. It has stayed with me most of my life. (Updike wrote this long before anyone talked seriously about postpartum depression or female alcoholism.) Actually, several of his colorful passages have stayed with me, their magical prose magnifying my own life.

For instance, in Rabbit is Rich (1981), Harry Angstrom is thinking about aging:

The cars sell themselves, is his philosophy. The Toyota commercials on television are out there all the time, preying on people's minds. He likes being part of all that; he likes the nod he gets from the community that had overlooked him like dirt ever since high school. The other men in Rotary and Chamber turn out to be the guys he played ball with back then, or their ugly younger brothers. He likes having money to float in, a big bland good guy is how he sees himself, six-three and around two fifteen by now, with a forty-two waist the suit salesman at Kroll's tried to tell him until he sucked his gut in and the man's thumb grudgingly inched the tape tighter. He avoids mirrors, when he used to love them. The face far in his past, crew-cut and thin-jawed with sleepy predatory teenage eyes in the glossy team portraits, exists in his present face like the chrome bones of a grille within the full front view of a car and its fenders. His nose is still small and straight, his eyes maybe less sleepy. An ample, blown-dry-looking businessman's haircut masks his eartips and fills in where his temples are receding. He didn't much like the counterculture with all its drugs and draft-dodging but he does like being allowed within limits to let your hair grow longer than those old Marine cuts and to have it naturally fluff out. In the shaving mirror a chaos of wattles and slack cords blooms beneath his chin in a way that doesn't bear study. Still, life is sweet. That's what old people used to say and when he was young he wondered how they could mean it.
I find myself wondering: Who else will talk about mundane middle/working-class America now? Bruce Springsteen?

Goodbye, cousin. May your soul rest in peace.