The private John Updike

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 Updike

BEVERLY 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."

When Updike laughs, his thick, thatchy eyebrows mobilize. His stammer, to which he dedicated much of a chapter of his memoirs, is barely discernible, more likely to be aggravated by confrontations more stressful than this one -- those with law-enforcement officers, say, or old-line New Englanders or "people of evident refinement or distinction." In conversation, he manages the neat trick of appearing simultaneously distant and eager to please and laces his sentences with twinkly words -- kind, nice, sweet, dear, fond, happy -- that seem far removed from the ongoing mischief and eroticism of this new book.

So, why Brazil?

"Well, you know, why not."

As an 11-year-old growing up near Reading, Pa., Updike had watched the outlandishly garbed Carmen Miranda gyrate across the screen at the local movie house. By his 20s, he was reading Joachim Machado de Asis, Brazil's great 19th Century writer of irony and disenchantment. "I remember, also, in the early '60s, when Brasilia was going up, photographs in Life of this exotic architecture being placed on an empty plain. Obviously, any country's interesting" -- a vision of old French West Africa had inspired The Coup's imaginary land of Kush -- "but Brazil, somehow, especially for me."

From a week's visit in early 1992, Updike brought home enough impressions for some poems (Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo and Brazil ) and a yearning "to see if I could write a shortish, fanciful novel, which you now hold in your hand, although it is not as short as I envisioned. This book has quite a lot of love packed into it. I thought I could write it quicker, that it would somehow write itself, but once you get going, there's more to say than you thought, and when you're writing about a strange terrain, you have to keep researching even the most elementary things, . . . and sometimes you don't find out and have to make it up. So it's harder."

The book -- a loose, modernized reworking of the romance of Tristan and Isolde -- welds together the lives of Tristo and Isabel, racial and economic opposites who fall in love under the scalding December sun of Copacabana and then travel more or less together across geography and time. Though their passion for each other is imperishable, their lives are complicated by politics, prejudice and a meddling crowd of ragged whores, assassins in silver-gray suits, time-warped bandits, thieving gold miners and a neglected shaman whose spells turn the white Isabel black and the black Tristo white.

For Updike, a psoriatic, "racially sheltered Northeast American" whose older daughter and older son are married to native Africans, there is powerful magic "in the whole idea of how your skin is in some way your fate. If I may say, psoriasis kind of forced me into becoming a writer, or at least into thinking, 'What can I do where nobody has to look at me.' So it's probably made me more skin-aware than your average citizen, and in some ways it was a modest rapture for me to write that section where Isabel's skin is dyed."

Updike characterizes the work as "a little panorama . . . the idea being that in Brazil, as in the United States in its heyday, one went west to get away and to strike it rich, if you could. And that's what my young couple do. It was fun to write a story where a lot of things happen, since I've been accused of having nothing happen in my books. And in some ways I treated Brazil as another kind of United States. It's about the same size and has some of the same peculiarities, . . . the same racial mix, the same coastal cities and then the immense hinterland. Our hinterland is no longer quite as hinter as Brazil's, but maybe Brazil's isn't as hinter as I made it seem, either."

The book should appeal most, he says, to anyone "who used to be pleased by Nabokov's excursions into the semi-real. I'm not Nabokov, and there was much about his fictional world that's a little constraining, but I did love the attitude he brought to the art of fiction, a kind of detached, almost scientific wish to do something new with this form. I don't see that much anymore. The people who write novels now seem to be very serious people who want to sell a million, or make a million at least. . . ."

This brings to Updike's mind his fellow Knopf writer Michael Crichton, whose new novel, Disclosure, zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists within minutes after it hit book stores. That sort of bloated instant success, Updike says, "is something I don't really expect for myself."

And despite a favorable preview in Publishers Weekly, Brazil was sent straight to the chopping block on Tuesday by The New York Times' critic, who savaged it as "ugly, repellent" and "a modern-day soap opera full of racial and sexual cliches" that "does for racial understanding what Mr. Updike's angry, bitter portraits of women in The Witches of Eastwick and S. did for communication between the sexes."

Yet even before that hefty salvo, Updike acknowledged that "there's much in the book to cavil at. But you can't think too much when you're writing about the reaction, either critical or commercial, the book's going to get. You'll get all fumble- fingered."

In fact, John Updike did not set out to be a novelist at all. His father, Wesley, taught high school math, a job that positioned the family on the Shillington, Pa., social ladder just below the best-paid hosiery knitter. Updike's mother, Linda Hoyer Updike, an aspiring writer with a master's degree from Cornell, was an oddity in her conservative, practical community, "where you either made things or you grew things."

Still, "people kind of respected her in a way. That's how it seemed to me. They kind of tiptoed around her. . . . It wasn't that she totally carried on in the teeth of a defiant society."

Mrs. Updike's great hope of publishing a historical novel about Juan Ponce de Leon never materialized, but two short-story collections eventually were published by mainstream houses. The last, The Predator, appeared in 1990, a few months after her death. "One of our last conversations was about some suggestions I had to improve the text," says Updike, "and, you know, she rejected almost all of them."

Updike's own early desire was to be a cartoonist, but he also began writing "light verse, with some unlight mixed in" and at 14 attempted a mystery novel. Published last year in a collection of famous authors' juvenile writings, it begins: "My employer, Manuel Citarro, pushed the letter across the desk at me. It was written in a large, mascueline hand, with no curly- cues and a firm down stroke." At Harvard, where he majored in English and edited the Lampoon, Updike began to write short stories, "but the idea of being a novelist didn't really hit until I was already published in The New Yorker fairly often, and I felt the next step -- if there was to be a next step -- would be to see if I could write a novel."

Willow, a chronicle of growing up in Pennsylvania, foundered. Updike's next effort, written before office hours on 600 sheets of The New Yorker's yellow copy paper, made it as far as a publishing house but not into print. A third try emerged during Updike's first summer in Ipswich. "I took it to Knopf, and to my everlasting delight the editor it happened to hit liked it. And it could have gone very otherwise, because it's not a book for everyone. . . . He called me up and said, 'Oh, I love your novel, wouldn't change a word,' all the things an author wants to hear. And there. I heard them."

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 timeis 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?"