John Updike and the three great secret things.
I was reluctant to resurrect John Updike -- quietly contained for nearly 10 years in boxes in a garage in New Jersey -- stirring anew the countervailing feelings that had, over the years, accompanied my reading of his work. Somehow, keeping the books boxed up kept him at a comfortable distance, like stuffed-away photographs, not forgotten, just accommodatingly absent.
Updike had been a most unlikely companion, his books marking points in my life for a quarter of a century. I first read him the year before I could legally drink in Pennsylvania and kept going back for refills after I married and as each of four children came along, and through four jobs. I kept track of him for most of those years through the shared lens of a boyhood in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. The contact dwindled, though, during the nearly 10 years I worked amid the wilds of Manhattan.
So here, sinking into the relative calm and sanity of the heartland, I imagined I faced a choice: allow whatever pull remained, given the grace of already diminished contact, to fade like other odd friendships or risk a sputtering and probably disturbing reentry into all those deliciously disturbing words.
The risk was to tangle again with his detached exquisiteness, the exhaustive tedium of all that suburban adultery, to take secret delight in the reverence he held for things American that, in other circumstances, I would pronounce as suffocating to the spirit.
It was too fascinating to give up.
I began unpacking what had survived the move to Kansas -- a dozen or so cartons -- at one end of a long basement family room.
In no special order there were biographies, histories, a smattering of theology, a liberal representation of the Catholic left, a copy of Humanae Vitae, an assortment of general books on basketball and basketball players and coaches (a not-so-secret passion), book-club collections of Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway and the like, Vonnegut, an Oxford Dictionary of the English Language -- the boxed, two-volume edition that came with its own magnifying glass -- a new copy of the Baltimore Catechism and a tattered and taped-up old St. Joseph's Missal with the English on one side and Latin on the other.
All of this was mixed willy-nilly as if the sorting that would come later required a prior shuffling of things. Big books were piled on top of leaner, narrower paperbacks, Steinbeck under Kazantzakis under the Great Political Theories under a guide book to Cape Cod beside A Popular History of the Reformation. A stack of novels by assorted women writers (they came out of the box that way) recalled a concerted effort of "bus reading" to learn something of "their" point of view during my years of commuting between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Amid the confusion, however, I had deliberately stacked. in a neat pile, the representation, in my limited library, of the works of Updike. If these had been baseball cards, they might have represented the better part of a team. The rest of the books (these were "keepers"--others having gone as donations to libraries or lost forever in the lending of books among friends) were what remained, in varying degrees, of interests, research, a smidgen of scholarship and duty.
A few fell into the category of purest pleasure, the ones that filled every spare moment no matter what the demands of work or home. They were the ones sneaked out in the car during a Little League practice or while a coat of paint was drying.
None filled that category as delectably or consistently as Updike. Now, with this oeuvre staring at me from the family-room floor, the old ghost of why reappeared. Why Updike? Why did he have such a hold?
To be honest, there was another coincidence working to resurrect that spectral question. Just weeks before, I had gotten my hands on a copy of Updike's memoirs, Self-Consciousness, which, for all my interest in him over the years, I had not yet read. It was a fitting reintroduction as the author so achingly pushed to explain himself, from his itchy skin to his pro-Vietnam stand.
And then there are favorite, pet
selves -- the faithful little habitue
of the Shillington playground, in
his shorts and sneakers, getting in
line for game after game of roof ball
... the lonely psoriatic explorer of
Caribbean islands, again in shorts
and sneakers, wandering with his
poor baked skin through the jostle
of tourists and natives, savoring the
tattered, fragrant, sleepy traces of
the old West Indies. ... So writing
is my sole remaining vice. It is an
addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous
taming of reality, a way
of expressing lightly the unbearable.
That we age and leave behind
this litter of dead, unrecoverable
selves is both unbearable and the
commonest thing in the world -- it
happens to everybody. ... Even the
barest earthly facts are unbearably
heavy, weighted as they are with
our personal death. Writing, in making
the world light -- in codifying,
distorting, prettifying, verbalizing
it -- approaches blasphemy.
Perhaps his work exercised such a compelling force because my pleasure had always been mixed with a certain edgy disagreement, at times a wish to fight and argue with him, a certain revulsion at what he saw and how he told it. I was the bystander, titillated and repulsed by a tragic event, repulsed but unable to look the other way.
My questions never centered on the good or bad, critically speaking, of the Updike corpus. He was demonically good -- all that splendidly precise, seductive description. It was easy to second the blurbs: "Striking, brilliant ... a literary event.. a sureness of touch, a suppleness of style ... It's incredible! ... inspired" and on and on. The reviews seem as endless as the output - 40 volumes including novels, poems, reviews, children's books. Eventually I would dig into deeper themes, delicate struggles between streams of theological thought, grand symbols, hidden and apparent, and wickedly clever mythological ribbons wound through the stories. He is good. But the first hooks -- and the best -- for me always were the little things. He writes in Rabbit, Run:
As they stare hushed he sights
squinting through blue clouds of
weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette
like a smokestack in the
afternoon spring sky, setting his feet
with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness
in front of his chest, one
widespread pale hand on top of the
ball and the other underneath, jiggling
it patiently to get some adjustment
in air itself. The moons on his
fingernails are big. Then the ball
seems to ride up the right lapel of
this coat and comes off his shoulder
as his knees dip down, and it appears
the ball is not going toward the backboard.
It was not aimed there. It
drops into the circle of the rim, whipping
the net with a ladylike whisper.
"Hey!" he shouts in pride.
I'm back in the schoolyard. Me and Jimmy H. and Clipper and Dino watch as a former high school star, with the fitting last name Jump, runs through a move and a quick swishing jumper in the lot behind St. Al's. My town, Pottstown, shares a gritty blue-collar, factory past with Reading, the area of which Updike writes early on, which is several times bigger and just 20 minutes west on Route 422. When Updike speaks of Brewer and Mount Judge, the alleys and backyards, the losers, the stalwarts, the guides of youth seen faded in an adult's vision, I feel the insider in a way I have experienced with no other writer.
Get out or else
The mother figure in Of The Farm gave voice to what might have been an angry, late teenage fear for me and my friends from surrounding small Pennsylvania towns: Get out or risk becoming "an Olinger know-nothing, a type of humanity ... that must be seen to be believed you can't believe it, but the people of that town with absolute seriousness consider it the center of the universe. They don't want to go anywhere, they don't want to know anything, they don't want to do anything except sit and admire each other."
Updike's later work, far removed from the common territory of Pennsylvania, could still provoke twinges of familiarity. There is a poignant few lines in Couples, amid all the unashamed bed-swapping of these in-turned pairs, a jolt of tenderness about what a partner can mean. "He wanted to touch her, for luck, for safety, as when a child in Farmington after a long hide in the weeds shouts Free! and touches the home maple."
And he locates the tiny spot of universal melancholy felt when dragging through the final hours of a weekend winding down.
She was to experience this sadness
many times, this chronic sadness
of late Sunday afternoon, when
the couples had exhausted their
game, basketball or beachgoing or
tennis or touch football, and saw
an evening weighing upon them,
an evening without a game, an
evening spent among flickering
lamps and cranky children and leftover
food and the nagging half-read
newspaper with its weary portents
and atrocities, an evening when
marriages closed in upon themselves
like flowers from which the
sun is withdrawn, an evening giving
like a smeared window on Monday
and the long week when they
must perform again their impersonations
of working men, of stockbrokers
and dentists and engineers,
of mothers and housekeepers, of
adults who are not the world's guests
but its hosts.
The difficulty for me, the feeling of wanting to argue and challenge, begins to show up in Updike's wider world, particularly beyond the familiar ground of Pennsylvania. He became, in a sense, a teacher of voyeurism and cultural pluralism. For his people, hopping around suburbia from bed to bed, all of it so explicitly recorded and so effortless and detached, were from another place. They were like nothing I had ever known.
So much sex.
"No, I don't think you can have too much sex in a book, since it is very much a part of people's actions, even when they're not doing something sexy," he told interviewer Dick Cavett in 1992. "It would be hard for a Martian, I suppose, arriving in New York City, to figure out immediately that sex was on everybody's mind, but if he lived here long enough, certainly it would become clear to him. As to my sex scenes in this book [Memories of the Ford Administration], they felt much lighter. In Couples, I was sort of a crusader, in a way, trying to make the reader read explicit sex; this is what sex is, blessed reader, take it or leave it -- sort of an 'in your face' approach, whereas by this book we're beyond all that, right? It's 25 years later, and they're meant to be kind of joyful, playful ... funny, even."
Three great secrets
When I read Couples as a young adult, I found the crusade titillating, was willing to quietly endorse it, but never became a terribly effective activist in the cause. Domesticity, with all its work and comforts, with its mayhem and tender moments, proved a firm anchor. I took it in, especially in this age, with gratefulness, tied as it is to a tradition and yet each year bearing more a certain spiky countercultural defiance that suits me.
In his book, John Updike and the three great secret things: Sex, Religion and Art, Jesuit Fr. George Hunt, editor of America magazine, wrote, "[A] novelist imbued with concern for these three great secrets must of necessity concentrate on the one Great Secret that is Sex. The obvious reason is that it is the one secret of which all his readers are aware, and so it becomes the most intelligible vehicle for his further exploration of those other two secrets to which readers are less sensitive."
But so little passion.
The immense sorrow weighing on Updike's people, a sorrow so necessary to his construct of religious experience, seemed rarely to come from anywhere outside a small town or a small circle of friends. The tick list of liberal concerns that might cause my friends not only an empathetic sorrow but a reason for acting -- torture, famine, poverty, homelessness, war, human rights abuses -- sound fallow, almost pretend, in the Updike world, where such matters generally intrude only as background noise. His people suffer self-imposed wounds, they are always hurting one another. They live by an ethic that I still find alien.
His is a world of Northern sensibilities in which ethnicity (there are exceptions) is like an insignificant point on a resume. These are fully acculturated Americans with an ordinariness that only one so deft as Updike would dare explore.
It is a world, too, of religion and faith that was strange to me, a Catholic and member of a large, extended Italian-American family (the name, they say, was changed in immigration court in 1898). Updike's world is Protestant and often uncertain and slippery and at the same time could seem so austere and forbidding. To ears that had so recently been fed 12 years of Catholic certainties, the individualistic struggles with God and bold questions, the flippant dealings with the Almighty were scandalously delicious, if disconcerting.
"How did the patently vapid and drearily businesslike teachings to which I was lightly exposed succeed in branding me with a cross?" he wrote in a first-person piece in Assorted Prose. "And a brand so specifically Lutheran, so distinctly Nordic; an obdurate insistence that at the core of the core there is a right-angled clash to which, of all verbal combinations we can invent, the Apostles' Creed offers the most adequate correspondence and response."
God is a family
In the short story "Sunday Teasing," one of his characters, explaining the difference between Catholics and Protestants, says, "The reason why in Catholic countries everybody kisses each other is that it's a huge family -- God is a family of three, the church is a family of millions, even heretics are kind of black sheep of the family, whereas the Protestant lives all by himself, inside of himself. Sola fide. Man should be lonely."
Character Piet, in Couples, was raised in a stem Dutch Reformed church "amid varnished oak and dour stained glass where shepherds were paralyzed in webs of lead."
An alien world with a severe and remote God and Updike's continual turning around of the three great secrets, surveying acres through a microscope.
Updike redux in Kansas. I find myself ready to take up the peculiar acquaintanceship again, even if his memoirs reveal this father of four can seem as incongruous in real life as some of his fictional characters. Yes, he did, as one angry reviewer put it, "toss off" a girl in the back seat "behind his wife's back [she was in the front seat] on Route 93."
The account, of course, aloof and told in passing, is contained in the chapter of his memoirs titled 'On Not Being A Dove," explaining why he did not protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It was one of the issues which, over the years, had prompted in me a disappointment and an urge to argue. He reprints here a section of a letter, cut by The New York Times, in which he says, "I would enjoy being released from the responsibility of having an opinion on the Vietnam involvement."
Throughout this chapter, Updike, who has done microsurgery on segments of the culture and jousted with the Almighty, displays an almost obsequious fawning on public authority. Who was he to question, he asks. Who, indeed.
But for the sake of having something to continue arguing about, I'll drop it.
Opening the boxes here in Kansas begins to fit nicely with making the rest of the space here familiar: stacking old dishes in a new kitchen, hanging old photographs. A new Updike novel is near the end stages, says a publicist, a new book of poems due out even sooner. They'll have a place on the new shelves.
Tom Roberts is NCR's senior news editor.
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|Publication:||National Catholic Reporter|
|Date:||May 26, 1995|
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