Lit Seen: John Updike and John Leonard, Writers at Rest


Easy enough to find all manner of thoughtful eulogy in the pages of Endpoint, John Updike’s final suite of poems, mostly written on the occasion of one late March birthday or another, with the last, “Fine Point,” dated less than a month before he died. But let’s quote the first stanza of “03/18/03″—one of the book’s least portentous poems—instead:

Birthday begun in fog, shot through with light—

“eating the snow,” they used to say. The Globe

this morning adds a name to those I share

the date with: Wilson Pickett, Brad Dourif,

F.W. de Klerk, Vanessa Williams,

my pal George Plimpton, plus Hawaiian statehood.

The name is Queen Latifah, whom I’ve seen

in several recent movie hits. Sweet smile.

Whether his smile or hers, Updike never gets around to specifying. Still, the satisfaction the author took in his newfound kinship to the Queen is not totally mysterious, not for a guy whose odd physical proportions and unwavering penchant for books rendered childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania, a mix of idyll and agonizing. As the critic John Leonard once wrote, “Pop nostalgia clings like a kudzu weed to everyone who ever grew up feeling alien-freaky—i.e., all of us who somehow knew we were born to die uncool.”

But this was a fate both men ducked. Leonard—onetime New York Times Book Review editor and “Private Lives” columnist, CBS Sunday Morning talking head, Harper’s book critic, Nation editor, New York TV writer, with freelance pieces to spare for every publication that would have him, including this one—died in November, felled by lung cancer, the same disease that would take Updike a few months later. Their memorials were March bookends: the dominant critic and dominant writer of the last half-century, mourned and remembered in the span of two and a half weeks.

Outside Leonard’s March 2 service, held at Central Park West’s Landmark on the Park, snow was still on the ground. Inside, what people talked mostly about were his sentences. Jen Nessel, stepdaughter: “World’s foremost proponent of the semicolon.” Larry Josephson, friend from Leonard’s little-known days in freeform radio: “He wrote with a Cuisinart, not with a pen.” E.L. Doctorow called them “club-sandwich sentences” and said Leonard was “born to freelance.” Leonard’s son, Andrew, compiled a concordance of his father’s essential words—tantrum, cathedral, linoleum, moxie, thug, dialectic, splendid, brood, libidinal, and qualm—conceding, reluctantly, that cuts had been necessary: rutabaga, kayak, and unindicted co-conspirators received only honorable mentions. “He was the first critic to take me seriously as a writer,” said Toni Morrison, one of the many authors—if maybe the most renowned—whom Leonard launched into greater recognition throughout his lengthy and absurdly prolific career.

About Updike, Leonard once wrote: “I like his music very much.” Melody, rhythm, counterpoint—these were tricks Leonard understood because of his own savant talent for them. As a stylist, only Didion gets anywhere close. (For this, she was anthologized in 2006’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live; Leonard wrote the introduction.) Here he is again, on Updike’s 21st novel: “Villages (2004) may have been yet another of Updike’s many anthropologies of Northeast-seaboard mating dysfunction and existential dread, but who else would have elaborated a psychology and phrenology of golf swings, noticed the ‘thoroughbred ankles’ of the hereditary rich, and plotted a trajectory by the games a man learns to play, from box hockey to bridge to cunnilingus?”

Golf, box hockey, bridge, and cunnilingus—a diverse American catalog that could’ve easily included baseball, baby-killing, and badminton as well. Like Leonard, Updike sprawled. The exact final count of discrete volumes of novels, short fiction, poetry, criticism, sports writing, and children’s stories is vague—”It depends on what you call a book,” he laughingly told Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2006 conversation at the New York Public Library, before pegging the number somewhere just shy of 60. Endpoint, out in April, and My Father’s Tears, a new short-story collection due in June, will surely push him to the other side of that line.

Last Thursday’s tribute to Updike at the NYPL was a younger, livelier affair than Leonard’s (although some, like this writer, might venture that Leonard’s prose won—and still wins—that battle in print). Candles ringed the edges of a sold-out crowd. Editors and admirers took turns reading excerpts from and encomiums for a man who lived through both Joe DiMaggio (to whom the New Yorker‘s David Remnick gratefully compared him, “eternally playing centerfield” for the magazine) and Katie Couric, who once asked the author—as a bemused ZZ Packer looked on—how it felt to “be the coolest writer in America.” Backstage at The Today Show, Packer remembered, she’d introduced herself to Updike as he emerged from makeup, his face discolored and puffy, like “an autumn squash,” his skin smeared with peach foundation. “I’m ZZ,” she said, to which Updike responded: “I’m Orange.”

Call him Green, too, like the Fenway Park wall to the right of which Ted Williams’s final home run touched down, memorialized by Updike in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and recalled again from the stage by Roger Angell. “The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over centerfield,” read Angell, taking his time. “From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” Having written the best baseball piece ever, Updike would never write one again.

Instead he moved on, suffering no shortage of ideas or interests—Updike’s passion as novelist and critic for the new and undiscovered was perhaps the attribute he shared most with Leonard. A browse in our Voice archives turns up, almost at random, Leonard’s “Leapfrog: A Brekekekex Ko-ax Ko-ax St. Patrick’s Day to You,” a casual on reptiles and the Irish on the occasion of March 27, 1984. “Who speaks for the iguana?” he asked then, and answered: “Me, Tennessee Williams, and Charles Darwin, whose window on the world was Galápagos.” Leonard’s window was letters, of course—Updike’s, too. Both lived, more or less, by the first line of Updike’s fine 2001 poem “A Rescue,” which begins: “Today I wrote some words that will see print.”