Up on Updike

Biography about the work as much as the life

Adam Begley
Adam Begley

Most of us, at one time, get ensnared by John Updike.

One of the other editors at my high school newspaper had become intoxicated with her latest discovery — a 1961 short story titled “A&P” that she’d come across in an old collection — and had insisted we all read it.

In the story, the writer, with whom we all were completely unfamiliar, relates his observations of teenaged girls who’ve entered the store where he’s running the checkout register. In present tense and with journalistic detail, the narrator relates the color of their swimsuits, the patterns of their sunburns, and even how one had “black hair that hadn’t quite frizzled right.”

We were captivated.

Adam Begley, one-time New York Observer books editor and author of the new biography “Updike,” also has got caught up in Updike’s eye for seemingly real-life details — what Updike himself would call a “tremor of actuality” as he strived “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

So much so that this book isn’t a traditional biography that starts with the subject’s birth and follows through to his death, in 2009, in a chronological march, heralding the high points of his life.

Instead, Begley — much as Justin Kaplan did in his 1966 “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain” — draws parallels among Updike’s real life, the experiences of his fictional characters and of the celebrated author’s public persona.

In his 76 years, Updike won arguably all the top writing awards — including two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards — and published 27 novels, 146 short stories and a wealth of essays, reviews — on art and literature, among other topics — and poetry.

Add in Updike’s many cagey interviews, public lectures (he never ducked a speaking engagement, Begley swears) and correspondence, along with even a bunch of his letters kept in the University of Iowa Libraries’ archives, and there’s lots of material to sift through.

But as rich and inviting as those possibilities may appear, do we ever get to know the creator of angsty Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom (protagonist of four novels), cranky writer Henry Bech (who, as Begley notes, “is sometimes self-consciously aware of being a character created by John Updike”), and several other quasi-stand-ins for Updike himself?

Begley, in an inviting, lucid style, does his darnedest to uncover the man’s inner life, as much as Updike tried to make that difficult. Updike may have written about what he thought and felt — and, in many instances, actually lived.

But he surely wasn’t going to confess to the crime.

Doesn’t every writer do this to some degree? And wouldn’t most good writers prefer you read their work rather than stuff written about them?

Well, yes, but Begley points out that Updike’s acquaintances and family eventually would learn the disturbing likelihood that anything from their lives that intersected with Updike’s — private conversations, deeply personal events, sexual infidelities — were fair game to be reworked, with varying degrees of disguise, for one of his fictions.

Or worse, in some instances recounted word for word, blow by blow. And not always in a flattering light.

Take how Updike painted his mother, Linda Hoyer Updike, who turns up in numerous stories under various names, sometimes with only scant alterations to what actually occurred.

Linda, herself a published writer though certainly not anywhere near as successful as her son would become, reared him with that sense of his own “specialness” and destiny for success. Yet Updike refers to her as having been among those aspiring writers stuck in “the slave shack of the unpublished.”

That could be because, despite his status as a doted-on only child, Updike viewed her time spent writing as competition for her affection, Begley suggests.

In the end, it may come down to this: What we know of John Updike the person is like the joke of the five blind men who bump into an elephant — one feels the animal’s massive leg and declares he’s found a tree, while another man finds the elephant’s trunk and believes he’s grabbed a thick rope … .

The sometimes unmatched and sometimes less-triumphant work is what we have, and that’s enough, really. Updike wrote about everyday life — the unpleasant days as well as the rosy ones — as he continued “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.