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Updike - Run

by Mark Peres

February 8,2009

John Updike sits forlorn on a bench beside a clapboard house. He is long and lean, his hair is tussled. He is wearing a pullover sweater whose sleeves are too short for his slender arms and elongated hands. He is awkward and gifted and alone. He is 23 years old in the picture, taken in 1955. That photograph was pinned to the bulletin board on my wall in my college dorm, a 100 year old clapboard house, and I imagined that the photograph was of me. I still do.

John Updike has been with me since I first read Rabbit, Run. We were assigned the novel in my Literature of the American Dream course my junior year. The novel famously tells the story of Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, a 26-year-old former high school basketball player who attempts to escape his suburban Pennsylvania life. Rabbit sells kitchen gadgets, is married to Janice, a cloying alcoholic, has a two-year old son – and finds it all unfulfilling. He runs off to have an affair with Ruth, a former part-time prostitute; he misreads a flirtation from his minister’s wife as an invitation for sex; Janice, while drunk and afraid, accidentally drowns their infant daughter in the bath; Ruth becomes pregnant and demands that Rabbit file for divorce or she will get an abortion. Unable to make a decision, Rabbit runs away once more, leaving the novel’s ending in midair.

I dog-eared almost every page of the book, and have it on my shelf to this day. We did what great literature classes do – read the story as entertainment, as a cautionary tale, as example of craft, and for layered meanings. We read import into Rabbit’s name, from him being timid and effectual, and constantly jumping, to the ‘angst’ that defined his turmoil, and the allusion to Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit and skewering view of middle-class conformity. We noted how the novel was written in present tense, giving an urgency to the harried, jumbled thoughts of characters – and how we all make sense of life in a stream of consciousness.

I loved Rabbit, Run. It was, it is, so unsparing and truthful. As a young man with literary ambitions, with a conflicted view of conventional success and artistic risk, and often feeling awkward and alone, I loved Updike for writing so courageously, including detailing Ruth performing fellatio on Rabbit – a scene that Knopf initially cut from the manuscript as too explicit. Updike would later go on to write explicit scenes of all type, poetically and less so, exposing the hidden truths of suburban life.

Later in my own life, with the photo of Updike on my table in my tiny apartment near the beach, I tried my own hand at a manuscript – determined to uncover similar truths about choice and convention. After reading a chapter at a writers’ club, a friend said my writing sounded like Updike. I grinned broadly. When I shared that comment with a new-found agent, he grinned too, but knowingly and for entirely different reasons. My writing was not anywhere near such class, but for moments the aspiration got me through difficult days.

Upon his passing, The New York Times called Updike protean – his writing was continual, relentless and crossed all genres: novels, short stories, essays, poems, and literary criticism. His subject matter was both weighty and light, from terrorism and the destruction of age to the last at bat of Ted Williams. He took as his career’s mission “giving the mundane its beautiful due.” As the years passed, I would see a new story of his in The New Yorker, not reading every one, but knowing that truth and beauty awaited.

Recently, I took another look at a family album as I entered into new photographs from the holidays. I looked at a photo taken of me when I was 21 years old. I am sitting alone in a college classroom, gazing into the distance, wearing a sweater not unlike the one worn by Updike in the photograph taken of him at nearly the same age. All I could do was smile at grace, notions of talent, and the passage of time.

So John, here's to you, and to the artistry you leave behind.

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