Originally published January 30, 1994
. . . authors are a dreadful clan / To be avoided if you can,
-- From 'I Missed His Book, but I Read His Name' by John UpdikeBEVERLY FARMS, Mass.-- A conspiracy of near-zero temperatures, sluggish airports and an inadvertent swerve past Salem's Lydia Pinkham Memorial has made you more than an hour late, but the angular form unfolding from a seat near the rear of K.C.'s Restaurant & Pub is not in the least bit dreadful. Your anemic apology is whisked aside with a handshake and a light quip about how you have "fought your way over the frozen tundra in a malfunctioning dog sled to get here." Then John Updike slides back into the wretched, patched vinyl booth and orders soup and a tuna sandwich. "So you see, I'm a cheap date."
Updike, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the revered/ reviled sage of sexual liberation and suburban unease, turns 62 in March. But even after 16 novels, 10 books of short fiction and six more of poetry, five collections of essays and criticism, a play, children's books, a volume of memoirs, a National Book Award, an American Book Award, sundry other prizes and repeated trips to the bestseller lists, he remains that rare literary celebrity: an unglittery private man in a gray sweater and gum shoes who happens to have written some of contemporary literature's most dazzling and maddening books about small, private lives.
Four decades ago, even as his star was catapulting at The New Yorker, Updike fled to New England, deserting Manhattan's publishing scene because it was "too crowded, too busy, too full of other writers looking over my shoulder. I've never liked sharing what I'm writing until it's finished. In a certain sense you're making a very private thing, like an egg, hatching an egg. 'Stay out of my womb while I'm hatching this egg, please.' "
The metaphor is unintentionally unfortunate, but the point is made. Now, even as Knopf's promotional machine grinds into gear over Updike's new novel, Brazil, there are limits to how much prying and poking will be tolerated: a day in New York, another in Washington, something for Mirabella "and I've been talking to some Brazilian interviewers over the phone, so I almost feel as if I've promoted this book enough."
For almost two decades during his first marriage, Updike had lived and worked a little north of here, in Ipswich, but for the past 12 years home has been this old resort town with its sedate narrow roads and unself-conscious charm. "We've had some famous residents. Oliver Wendell Holmes lived here for a number of summers. Robert Lowell situated a couple of poems here." Updike lives in "an old summer house, but I live in it all year round. . . . I never thought I'd live in Beverly Farms, but the house seemed right when my wife and I were looking for a house, and here we are." You are not invited to drop by.
Still, here at K.C.'s, while the locals stream in for coffee and an idle waitress shuffles a deck of cards, Updike's brand of Protestant confirmation-class civility plays out just fine. Years ago, someone described the author as "a nice, good- tempered sloth," and "I guess there's something kind of slothful about me. Slow moving, maybe. When I was asked what animal I wanted to be, I nominated the turtle. I thought I'd be happy as a turtle. That idea of being so safely enclosed, hearing the rain on the roof. That was appealing."