A Mighty Oak Falls

I met John Updike once, for the same 20-second interval that hundreds of others met the man that day: by waiting excitedly in a line, then reverently approaching a table where he sat, pen in hand, beside a stack of newly published books. This was at a college in St. Paul around 1992. The book he was promoting and touring for was the collected Rabbit novels. I wasn’t much interested in that; a student, I didn’t have $25 or $30 to spring for the hefty tome. Besides, I already owned some of the Rabbit series individually, and those that I didn’t own, I was in the habit of borrowing from my dad’s old pocket paperbacks, copious intrusive marks and all.

One such Rabbit book, and the one I took to the reading to be signed, was a first edition, first printing hardcover of Rabbit is Rich. This Pulitzer-winning title had been plucked (rescued, I liked to think) from the shelves of Stub & Herb’s, a bar and burger joint near the U of M campus, where part of the décor construed to identify it as a collegiate hangout were shelves filled with secondhand castoffs, including the ubiquitous Reader’s Digest condensed books. How Rich got in there we’ll never know. It had no dust jacket, and the cloth cover was a dull brown, so I suppose it blended in with the near-worthless relics. When a girlfriend who waitressed there spotted it, she gifted it to me, knowing my affinity and devotion to its prolific author.

The humble thing, considerably thinner than the volume on offer, I handed to Updike when my turn at the signing table arrived. I didn’t expect him to be surprised or delighted; I figured he’d been handed stranger things to sign. But I did secretly hope, as many must, that he would take notice of me. He received it with curiosity, and inquired in a manner, just as I’d hoped, that allowed me to relate my story of its acquisition. I told him how I’d gotten it from a girlfriend who worked at a restaurant, where it had been found on the shelves, and how she’d presented it to me. This made sense to him; he wasn’t offended that his work had been dealt some neglect. He asked what name to inscribe, and did his signing. “And the girlfriend?” he asked, handing the book back to me.

“We broke up,” I said.

updike

“And this is all that’s left,” he commented slyly, a twist to the toothy mouth that he spoke often of being embarrassed by. He was absolutely right. The book was all that was left.

“Yes,” I said, and thanked him, pleased to have engaged him briefly (as if I’d done him a favor!)—a small recompense for the plenteous engagement he’d given me, given all of us in that room, that one lecture hall of one college, on one tour, back in 1992.

This morning, the day after his passing, I feel I’ve had a longer conversation with him, after watching this interview conducted by Chip McGrath in October 2008. Though I wasn’t there and asked no questions, Updike’s warmth and openness are what one would hope to receive in a conversation with any admired man. Given short and unordinary questions, he expounds onto broader generalities. He’s humble about his accomplishments and honest about his doubts, failings, and uncertainties, which he seems to mention knowing that the impression his many admirers may have is that it all comes with masterful ease. He seems always to see with an uncommon scope, his perceptive mechanism fluidly zooming in and out of the past, in and out of himself, moving between the broad view of intellectualization and the sharp hone of his feeling. He admits to being having been hurt by criticism, and feeling “repentant” if he’d “trespassed” on women, on feminism, in his work. The Christian vocabulary was integrated in his person; he did not have to research these feelings as he says he researched Medieval witchcraft, for the Witches sequel, to learn of “pins and feathers” coming from peoples’ mouths.

Also integrated into his way of seeing is metaphor. Notice how his answer to the first question of the interview creates one, no warm-up needed: he says writing a sequel is hooking one car onto another, by which we immediately envision a train.

Notice how his eyes lock on the distance to his upper left, where on this stage he must see lights pointed right at him. It’s as if his imagination resides there, or he’s accessing something heavenly. When he adds his interviewer’s name in address, his eyes move down and to the right: the opposite, the earthly realm, the realm of man. Then, thinking again, composing intricate reflections live and on the spot with ease, his eyes return ceiling-ward.

Does anyone else speak as he does, in conversation? Ian McEwan, in reflection of his death called Updike’s personal manner “courtly.” It would seem that, I suppose, to an Englishman. But if all Updike’s thoughts and elocutions are formal, they are not affected. He knows when to put something simply; and often puts things very humorously, if sublty so. Most often, though, he sees many complexities and has the tools to include them in his speech. We know from his writings and interviews that these inclusions are homages to the complex splendor of creation and existence. It is a writer’s duty to attend to them. In this court, he was king.