The Skeptic’s Guide to John Updike

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What’s yr take on Updike? Misogynist? Genius? King of the WASPs? Guy you only know about because your parents had a few of his books on the shelf? Writer’s writer whose style you envy? Or is he a writer whose reputation has been unfairly maligned? This is the double-sided coin you flip when discussing Updike: he wrote beautifully, often flawlessly — but he’s also the prime example of post-war American white dudes whose work treats women like either like helpless idiots or, well, witches. But if you’re willing to read him simply for the craft, and can deal with the awkwardness of his outdated way of thinking, then you might really enjoy Updike. And if you already like his work, Adam Begley’s excellent new biography, Updike, will give you more insight into a writer you might still be conflicted about reading.

The Rabbit books, especially 1960’s Rabbit, Run, are usually the first novels cited in any conversation about the writer born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, but reared and educated in Massachusetts. And yes, it is tough to argue with the importance of that first book and, to an extent, the rest of the series. But if you’re wary of Updike, here are better avenues to go down if you’d like to try him out.

The Bech books

Among the many post-war writers and intellectuals who were Jewish or came from other immigrant groups, WASPy Updike still wasn’t exactly a minority. Younger than Cheever, more versatile than Yates, Updike carried the flame for a certain old, well-educated guard; he was his era’s great chronicler of the mundane life and times of white people. His character Henry Bech, who Begley points out was influenced by (among others) Bernard Malamud, is a much more likable character; he’s an older, middle-of-the-road writer who you don’t want to like, but end up kinda rooting for anyways. The Bech stories are some of Updike’s funniest, and showed he was able to make fun of his contemporaries without getting too personal, while also — seeing as Updike felt that he and Bech shared a number of similarities — poking fun at himself.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

It’s a Boston story that could have been written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. In Updike, Begley tells us that when the author was “falling in love, away from his marriage,” Updike went to the home of the unnamed object of his affection, and she wasn’t there, “so he went instead to Fenway Park and watched his great hero Ted Williams hit a home run in his last ever at-bat.” What came out of that was one of the finest piece of sports writing ever published, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, Updike’s account of the game’s greatest hitter’s final appearance in a uniform. For those who pine for poetry in their sports reporting, Updike wrote both a beautiful piece of literature and one of the finest writings ever on America’s pastime.

Updike’s short stories

You just don’t hear people getting as excited as they should be about Updike’s stories these days — and that may have a lot to do with why he’s so often ignored by this new generation of readers. It’s a shame since Updike, who published short fiction from the early 1950s until his death in 2009, was truly one of America’s finest at the form. Last year’s gorgeous Library of America edition collected everything into two volumes, and it makes a worthy purchase for yourself or an Updike-newbie friend.