That book, published in 1959, was The Poorhouse Fair. It was followed a year later by Updike's still best-known work, Rabbit, Run, the first installment of what eventually became the Bunny Books tetralogy (Run, Redux, Is Rich and At Rest). The series, which brought Updike his Pulitzers, also made an icon of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former Pennsylvania high school basketball star whose tragicomic struggles with small-town sex, death, parenthood and faith would come to represent the discontentment and malaise plaguing much of middle America from the 1950s through the 1980s. Adultery, drugs, bastard offspring, fires, alcoholism, spouse-swapping, junk food, bankruptcy, heart trouble: Updike did not name the guy Angstrom for nothing.
As decades pass, Updike's trail of work stretches on and on. Books emerge at the rate of about one a year, sometimes two, in a rhythmic flow: poetry, novel, short stories, novel, children's book, short stories, poetry, novel, short stories, novel, essays and criticism.
"If you can't write a book a year, you probably shouldn't be an author, I figure," Updike says. "The American style -- Saul Bellow being an exemplar -- is taking your time producing a big book, and I think the critics like that better, because it doesn't harass them always with another new book coming out. There's an implication when there's only a book every five years that, 'Boy, this guy's really worked hard on this. He's really been thinking.' Maybe that's true, but I suspect a lot of the time is not spent thinking but doing other things."
For Updike, this is a two-book year, with a short-story collection scheduled for the fall. After that, "I'm due for a fairly ambitious long novel, very American, very tell-all. And I need to get a kind of handle on it in my mind, because once you're in a book, every day you've got to move it. Otherwise it'll sit there and congeal. . . .
"When you don't have a novel going, you seem to have a lot more time and natural gaiety in your life. On the other hand, the novel is what we like out of our writers, isn't it? It's where the payoff is."
In August 1990, Updike caused a tremor in the publishing world when he announced in a front-page essay in The New York Times Book Review that his new book, Rabbit at Rest, would kill off Harry Angstrom. The shock waves still have not stopped. "I still get Rabbit mail, Rabbit-mourning mail."
But "it's delightful to have created a character who matters to some people that much," Updike says. "He really is, I guess, one of my great achievements, if I have a great achievement. And he was fun. He was easy to write about. Once I'd set him in motion, . . . he did kind of run. And so did the people around him. . . . It was with some sadness that I let him go."
Oddly, Rabbit departs not from his familiar Pennsylvania landscape but from a hospital room in mythical Deleon (as in Ponce, in tribute to Updike's mother), a tourist-retirement mecca on Florida's west coast where Harry and his wife, Janice, have bought a condo and eased into a part-time, golf-and-sun lifestyle. "Banyan trees fascinate Harry down here," Updike writes, "the way they spread by dropping down vines . . . they look to him like enormous chewing gum on your shoe."
This is not unfamiliar territory to Updike. A branch of his father's family established itself years ago in the citrus belt around Lake Wales, "so up in Pennsylvania it was kind of wonderful to know that we had these Florida cousins. We visited them, not often but sometimes, and Florida is in my blood for a long time back."
So when Updike was working on the Florida sections of Rabbit at Rest, especially the parts with Harry "driving down there and being there alone at the end . . . I was happy, because he was finally getting what he wanted. He was going home, in a strange way. Home to meet God. Home to die in Florida. God lives in Florida, at least for Harry. Maybe for all of us God lives in Florida. Can that be true?"