Book Reviews

Updike – Adam Begley – Book Review


Updike by Adam Begley – Review by Dan O’Neill

There’s a passage Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’, a comprehensive and engaging book, that refers to John Updike joining a Recorder group to meet up and play music. Pretty ironic really, as the author spent most of his life recording the people and events around him. Beware the Writer; they’ll end up featuring you somehow, be it as a hypocrite, fool, knave or chancer. Updike was none of these. Instead, he stands as a giant of American Letters, one of the greatest writers not to win the Nobel Prize (but winner of a Pulitzer, among countless other prizes) and, much to Tom Wolfe’s chagrin perhaps, a man in full. Be it prose, poetry or reviewing, John Updike kept writing almost till his death; he was one of the most industrious US writers of the last fifty years.

Let’s start with the parents. Updike’s mother Linda Grace, was a writer of some not inconsiderable success and his father Wesley seems to have been a decent, kind, schoolteacher. Both would be re-fashioned and re-sculpted in their son’s fiction. They knew they had a bright boy in John, an only child, and his upbringing on ‘Main Street’ in Shillington and then Plowville in Pennsylvania gave the young Updike a solid anchor of self and curiousity. He went to Harvard and chaired the ‘Harvard Lampoon’; Begley gives us a sense of Updike’s sense of humour. John was the opposite of po-faced.

Updike became one of the youngest ever staffers on the ‘New Yorker’, at one stage doing ‘Talk of the Town’. He would write on-and-off for the magazine for most of his life. He loved that city and was present during the 9/11 attacks of which he wrote movingly. But most of Updike’s adult family life was spent in self-imposed semi-rural isolation; he needed to write.

The main take from this comprehensive and pleasurable read is that Updike and his fictional selves became so enmeshed that it was hard to say where one began and the other ended. His ‘Rabbit’ Hero, Harry Angstrom, is almost always an alter-ego to Updike’s fantasies, ruminations, and interrogation of American ‘ordinariness’. Rabbit is Norman Rockwell with added sex, a man from the generation after the ‘Greatest Generation’.

For a man of the 1960s, Updike was quixotically counter-counter-cultural. While supporting civil rights and being a solid liberal Democrat, he was reluctant to criticise US involvement in Vietnam. How America had changed in Rabbit’s lifetime; towards his final days, Updike ‘found the election of Barack Obama hugely consoling. As he wrote to a Harvard classmate, “What a great country we have when it decides to be.”

Golf and poker kept Updike grounded; even though he was one of the wealthiest writers in the US, he maintained a demotic sensibility. Global travel to conferences and off the beaten track helped bolster his inquisitiveness; he never stopped learning and looking for new material. God and church-service (Updike was a committed Episcopalian) kept Updike as humble as you can keep a multi-millionaire author.

Harry/John was a serial monogamist who dabbled in affairs; Begley covers the private Updike (is there such a thing) with discretion and grace. There is little in the way of tittle-tattle or gossip, but there is just enough spice to show that the biographer isn’t turning a complete blind eye to Updike’s philandering. Women played a huge role in his public and private life; accusations of misogyny were made by some about his literary personae.

Adam Begley (Harvard PhD and New York Times contributor) knew John Updike slightly and, while obviously in awe of much of his subject matter’s work, is highly effective as an impartial narrator. It is often uncanny how the younger Begley sees things from Updike’s perspective.

Begley has written a wonderful book, a cross between biography and literary criticism that brings Updike’s personality alive. John Updike passed away in 2009, aged 76, and he leaves behind a voluminous literary legacy that will surely stand the test of time. Begley has done a great service to the man and his work.

Updike – Adam Begley – Harper Collins – £23 (Hard Back, 558pp)

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