John Updike has died today, at the age of 76. In his life, and over his long, prolific career, the writer served both as kind of glittering emblem of the literary world–the youthful, WASP-y good looks, that mannered style, that impeccable education–and, eventually, of that world’s old guard. David Foster Wallace famously dubbed Updike a “Great Male Narcissist,” a club to which Philip Roth and Norman Mailer (who once characterized Updike’s prose as “stale garlic”) were also consigned. Early in his career, Updike was an author obsessed with bourgeois adultery, suburbia, and the peccadilloes of those who’ve come into the Protestant faith by inheritance. His “Rabbit”-era–five books, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize–lasted 41 years; in that time, he more than fulfilled a promise he made, early in his career, to publish at least one book a year. Later in life, he would become a brilliant critic, in the pages of the New Yorker and elsewhere, writing fluently and vibrantly about new books–the role in which I knew him, and liked him, best.
The Boston Globe collects 6 essential works, while the New Yorker reprints Updike’s famous 1960 essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which begins: “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” There is also Nicholson Baker’s U and I, a book-length study of Baker’s fascination with Updike, and, of course, Updike’s own work. “How real is death to those who still live?” Updike wrote in 2006 New Yorker essay, “Late Works.” “Art comes, it may be, from the death-denying portion of the psyche, deeper than reason’s reach.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 27, 2009