Sometimes I don’t feel worthy as a reader, as if I haven’t earned the right to turn the pages. That’s admittedly entirely at odds with the impact that any writer would ever hope to have, making me feel guilty for even expressing it. Certainly, John Updike, a deeply devoted reader who contributed effusive, informed book reviews to The New Yorker for years, would probably be dismayed by me–by anyone–applying that sentiment to his work. And yet that’s exactly how I felt. It’s not that the language was too dense or flowery, curlicues of off-putting eloquence. Instead, it was the clean, vivacious command of language that always left me humbled. I had a sense that Updike was putting together words the way they were meant to be put together, as if centuries of clumsy language usage led up to the only guy who’d actually read the instruction manual before putting typewriter keys to paper.
Perversely, I started with an ending, maybe the ending. Of all of Updike’s acclaimed writing, none was more celebrated than the novels centered on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, two of the four works earning the author Pulitzer Prizes (he remains one of the only writers to claim the fiction prize twice). I bought Rabbit at Rest, the final novel featuring the character, used and left on my shelf for ages, circling it like uncertain prey from time to time. I knew its reputation well and had a wariness about testing my English degree against it. When I finally brave the book, reading it wasn’t a test. It was a pleasure. The writing was pungent, direct, strident, nuanced, and commanding. If I didn’t necessary embrace every bit of plot (Updike had that common ailment of older authors that I think of as Roth’s Disease: the helpless need to project sexual prowess and irresistibility on characters of the same age, no matter how implausible it may be), I recognized a unencumbered spirt transferred to the page with urgency and commitment. Like many of his peers, Updike wrote as if it were incumbent on him to capture the moment–of his country, his people, his self–with an honest clarity meant to endure. This is an example of fiction as a calling.
The novel that drove home Updike’s unique skill to me was a slightly later work, 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. Tracing the 20th Century journey of the United States through the multi-generational experiences of a northeastern family. Updike was encroaching on traditional retirement age, and the book has the feel of someone who decided it was time to sit down and crank out The Great American Novel. It doesn’t have a sense of obligation to it, though. It’s lithe and smart, burning with the intellectual energy of a guy who has nothing left to prove, but wants to go ahead and prove it anyway. Simply because he can. And he left behind piles of books that often plenty more proof, for anyone who feels worthy to dive into them. I’m getting there.