Thursday, January 29, 2009

Updike

Murray Attaway--"My Book" (mp3)
Patty Larkin--"The Book I'm Not Reading" (mp3)

I didn't like his poetry at all.

I didn't much care for his criticism. I think maybe he was too smart for me.

I thought he had big ears.

I didn't know he had lung cancer.

I'm not sure that most people realize what a giant of American literature is gone. It's been such a long time since John Updike was in vogue. Probably his last major surfacing into the collective American consciousness was in the 80's, when Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher starred in the film version of his novel, The Witches of Eastwick. Since then, he's put out other minor works, some that dabbled in reimaginings of Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter, and, as a coda to his life, a follow-up to that first Eastwick novel.

He didn't spend his latter career at the top of his game, like Philip Roth has been doing. But Roth didn't put his Zuckerman (a far less-engaging character than Harry Angstrom) through his paces until long after Updike did. It's difficult for me to think of any other character who held onto his interestingness and energy through four major novels over four decades.

Sometimes you hear that geniuses really only have one great idea that they return to, in different permutations, again and again. If that's the case, then Updike's great idea was Harry Angstrom, a high school basketball star who we, the reader, never even meet until he is past his prime, trying to survive himself and trying to make his marriage and the resultant, screwed-up children survive in an increasingly-capitalistic, hedonistic America.

Like many readers, I met Harry all four times: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest. At the last, he is a fat older man who gets pulled back onto the court one more time to challenge a kid and loses the game to his heart, a massive coronary winning out.

People like to talk about the decline of society, the slipping of standards, the degradation of mankind. Well, ponder this one if you will: 25 years ago, Updike's second Harry Angstrom novel, Rabbit Redux, was taught in senior courses at this school. There is no way in hell that that would be allowed today. You think Fight Club stirred things up a few years ago because of the reference in the forward to a bodily discharge belonging to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher? Rabbit Redux contains many, many graphic sex scenes, a fair number of them interracial. Process that one, Moms-In-Touch!

Updike's best novels challenged the conventions of American society, while illuminating that society and its shallowness. Through affairs, failures, momentary successes, inabilities to understand his children, one couldn't help but embrace the humanity of Harry Angstrom. He was America's human train wreck, and I, for one, never wanted to look away.

In 2009, it's hard to remember that Updike was a trememdous, best-selling author. Such is the fast pace of tastes and heroes, literary or otherwise. But he is one of the ones that mattered, and still matters. Adios, Mr. Updike.

Murray Attaway's "My Book" comes from his solo cd, In Thrall. He is the former lead singer of the tremendous alternative 80's band, Guadalcanal Diary. Patty Larkin's "The Book I'm Not Reading" is from her second cd. Both may be available at Itunes.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

yep, rabbit redux senior year. I often thought if that 1 ever came around again.

troutking said...

I started with Rabbit at Rest when it came out when I was in college and worked backward. Still an awesome series of novels, even read that way. It was kind of like that episode of Seinfeld with the Indian wedding and George wearing Timberland boots all the time.

Dan said...

One reason the Rabbit books shouldn't be taught in college is because students have no frame of reference for that world. None. They are not 50 years old with lives that are smothering them. You may as well teach a William Shatner Tek novel.
I read some Rabbit books in college and thought "this guy is a miserable fuck." Little did I know that 30 years later I would be him. Without the sex.

Bob said...

Dan, agreed. But just so you know, we're here at at high school where the book was taught to seniors.

Billy said...

Dear Dan: Thank you for inspiring me to avoid these frikkin' books at all costs.