John Updike: Ted Williams of Our Prose

updike lateJohn Updike had every kind of grace about him, including for me an aura of divine blessing. I liked his religious inquiries better than the Rabbit books — novels like A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and The Beauty of the Lilies, and of course stories like “Pigeon Feathers” about a boy’s crisis of faith, which ends in his famous meditation on the pigeons he’s shot, on orders, in his mother’s barn, and the irresistible beauty of the blue and gray patterns in their dull coloring. “He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Updike had a good priest’s devotion to his writing vocation. And for all the sex, laughter and inspired mischief we remember him for (“The Disposable Rocket,” for example), he had also an air almost of sanctity.

ted for lifeI loved him in something like the way he loved Ted Williams. We were looking once together at Arthur Griffin’s rediscovered color plates of the formally flawless boy-wonder Ted Williams when he first wore a Red Sox uniform in 1939 — photographs like the one on Ben Bradlee’s book cover that had languished in a file drawer for 50 years. “More god than man!” I gasped, and Updike laughed in assent. Of course, my exclamation was about Updike, too. People have quoted an Updike interview in the Guardian in which he explained that he moved to the North Shore of Boston in the 1950s to get closer to the New England vibrations of Melville and Hawthorne. He told me something else: that after a young life of listening to Red Sox night games on the radio, he wanted to get closer to where Ted Williams played ball. I have another strange memory in the Updike-Williams connection — strange because it was something John told me and later said he forgot. What I remember clearly is asking him if he ever heard from Williams about the great ““Hub Fans…” piece. Updike said he met Ted Williams in person a few years later and that Williams admired him profusely. “Real talent,” Ted said in effect. “With that sort of gift you could actually be doing something useful…”

“Like what?” Updike asked the Splinter.

“Like save the Atlantic salmon!” Ted roared, again like a god, but angry this time.

Updike was generous with his postcards and ever game for conversation — as in the Open Source file on his Terrorist and his second volume of art criticism, Still Looking. Maybe the best fun I had in many TV and radio conversations with our prince of letters was spotting, in the last posthumous novella on Rabbit Angstrom (“Rabbit Remembered” in Licks of Love) an uncanny pattern in the talk between Rabbit’s son Nelson and the out-of-wedlock daughter, Annabelle, who pops up, unheralded, at age 39. Searching her memories of the late Rabbit, Annabelle refers with Nelson to “our father” — not once, I noticed, but four times in the short book.

CL: You can’t say “our father” — certainly John Updike can’t — without conjuring “Our father who are in heaven…”

JU: That’s very ingenious and good of you, and I think it takes the book in the correct spirit. I don’t know as I was aware of the Lord’s Prayer as I was writing it, but it’s hard not to be. The whole concept of fatherhood is all tied in with the Christian god, who is “Our father who art in heaven.” And Harry Angstrom would seem to be in heaven — he’s not on earth, quite, in much of this book. There isn’t too much religion in this book, certainly compared to the first one, where Harry is haunted by God, haunted by the church fronts and the morality of Diamond County back in the Eisenhower era. But I guess insofar as I remain a Christian and haunted by those images, this book too has “our father” in it. I saw it as an attempt of Nelson and Annabelle, who are new to eachother — he’s in his early 40s, she’s about to turn 40 — to [see] that the one link they have is “our father.” And in some sense Harry is meant to be felt in the book, as having brought them together — as having himself in his lifetime, failed to discover Annabelle or to get Ruth to admit that Annabelle existed. But now he wants to get them together and wants it to work out, you know, well!

CL: I just beg to differ, in the sense that I think there’s a lot of religion in this book — not a lot of churchgoing. Annabelle, though, says explicitly — she’s a licensed practical nurse in the care mostly of Alzheimer’s patients; Nelson also is in mental health care — at one point she says: “You can’t feel casually about these people. I go on these teams Hospice sends around. Even at the very end there’s something in there. A soul, or whatever, you have to love.” The immortality of the soul, it seems to me, runs through the whole book, as people talk about death, as they worry about death. Nelson has a funny line. He says: “it’s like a nap, except you don’t have to get up and put your shoes back on.” They’re thinking about the other side all the time.

John Updike in conversation with Chris Lydon on NPR’s “The Connection,” December 4, 2000.

I took John Updike’s free, odd, stuttering, then neighing laughter in that interview as his affirmation in the moment — a token of his blessed assurance of his own immortality and ours, too.

Afterthought on Saturday, January 31: It’s striking that some of the best of the Updike appreciations are from abroad — like these on the Guardian page:

Updike on himself

John Banville, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwen et al on Updike

Updike remembered by Xan Brooks

From Lorrie Moore

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