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Adam Begley's Updike biography focuses more on its subject than his work

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Updike by Adam Begley

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It’s hard to imagine how somebody might take the first step toward chronicling John Updike’s life. There’s nothing incredibly scandalous, save for a bit of philandering in the middle years, and the bibliography is too forbiddingly massive in both size and scope to afford more than a cursory glance at each piece within the space of a single volume. 186 stories, over twenty novels, scrolls upon scrolls of book reviews, “Talk of the Town” pieces, ruminations on golf and art – miscellany of every sort.

Adam Begley’s pulled it off, though, with his new biography Updike wherein, predictably, Begley walks, for several hundred pages (and with great pacing, erudition and sympathy), a tightrope of omission. What to mention, what not to mention – he balances it well, touching not strictly upon the most popular works, but, in deference to his true subject, dwells on the books, the stories and poems and essays, that revealed or mattered most to Updike himself. Highlights, for example, a trilogy of thematically-related novels – A Month of Sundays (1974), S. (1988), and Roger’s Version (1986) – belonging to Updike’s “Scarlet Letter” trilogy, a lengthy homage to Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s also one of Updike’s sprawling explorations of adultery and marital strain, his pet subjects next to religious doubt, which is also explored at length in each book. None of these books probably rank, in the eyes of most readers, among Updike’s finest work, but they were intimate projects that reveal quite a bit, and so they get their due.

The most popular pieces, as well as those generally considered Updike’s best, are the Rabbit tetralogy (Rabbit, Run (1960); Rabbit Redux (1971); Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), the short story “A&P”, the story collection Pigeon Feathers (1962) and the novel The Witches of Eastwick (1984). Each is discussed at length to reveal Updike’s interests, the subject matter’s relation to his private life, as well as its role in the evolution of his career. We know, at the end of Begley’s assessment, as much as we need to, surely, but there isn’t any sense of a curtain being pulled back. It’s hard to tell, though, if this ought to be attributed to some shortcoming on Begley’s behalf (which I doubt) or if it’s really just that Updike’s writing was propelled by a prodigious work ethic; more professional dedication than creative inspiration. There’s no great flood of blood or tears behind his books. They just…appeared.

The narrative is swift, impressively so, and fortunately doesn’t give to Updike’s boyhood the laboriously meticulous account that Updike already has. It’s interesting: Updike’s life was really pretty tranquil. He went to college, got married, worked at the New Yorker, became a novelist, slept around, got divorced; a year later he was married again, living well, and writing. Always writing. Given his output, it makes sense that he did little else. And but this, in turn, is why despite Updike’s uneventful life there’s so much for Begley to write about. Where did all of this work come from?

Well, from Updike’s nostalgia for Shillington, mainly; his boyhood home in Pennsylvania. A considerable wedge of his work, maybe the largest, revolves around his hawkeyed nostalgia for even the fleeting minutiae of those years. The angling of sunlight on the lawn, his grandfather cutting apples under a tree, his mother’s incessant typing and the envelopes with which she sent out her manuscripts. Being a husband and father definitely inspired lots of the early fiction and poetry. Then, still in his 20s, he starts writing about marital strain. Stifling domestic situations. And therein comes adultery. It exacerbates those aforementioned themes and prompts him to question, from a new angle, his relationship to God – another big issue that surfaced in his youth and weighed on him forever.

Quoting a story written while living alone, for the first time in his life, after separating from his first wife Mary, in which its protagonist “discover[s] himself so sealed that his wound ached to be reopened,” Begley comments: “reopening the wound is what Updike did in story after story, a masochistic aggravation of the initial problem…Still, however unhappy, he was essentially unchanged. He carried on churning out his daily pages, correcting proofs, keeping up his end of a voluminous, chatty, cheerful correspondence.”

This seems to sum up Updike’s life. What wounds he had, he suffered in youth (although the indignities of aging ultimately took him for a spin), and for the rest of his life tore them open and sealed them up, endlessly, with bottomless lyricism despite a good deal of thematic repetition. As his second wife Martha writes in the margin of an early draft of Updike’s late novel Toward the End of Time: “Well, it’s your call, but you already told us, the Readers, in a previous novel, about the time you f***ed 3 women in 1 day. It’s boasting too much, perhaps?”

The lyricism earned Updike the repeated accusation of having nothing to say, of being “all style and no substance,” which for a lot of the stories and poetry seems to be the case. It was when he occasionally paired the lyricism with insight, holding his life and country under the sharpest lens, that he puts out the work that – depending on who you ask – either achieves or just barely approaches greatness. The Rabbit books, mainly, each volume spaced about a decade apart.

Begley gives diminishing attention to the Rabbit books after a glowing assessment of Rabbit Redux, the second installment in the series and, according to him, probably the best.

It would have been nice to read more about the process of writing those last two volumes, widely considered the strongest of the series, and about which relatively little is said. But, alas, what is there to be said? Apart from an evasive historical novel about James Buchanan, the writing seemed to always come with ease for Updike. What is Begley supposed to say about a man typing effortlessly day after day? It’s an understandable absence but, nevertheless, curiosity persists.

But yeah, that aforementioned first wife, Mary Weatherall, was cooperative with Begley in the book’s composition. He extends his gratitude in the Acknowledgements. The second wife, Martha, appears to have contributed nothing, however; save, presumably for an impediment here and there. She’s depicted through the book as Updike’s biggest fan, essentially. Aggressively protective of him, his space, and his time, ensuring nobody bothered him. She filtered his mail and basically dictated how he spent his time.

Or so it’s depicted.

Updike’s final years are surprisingly bleak, and Begley does a remarkable and moving job at portraying the terminally ill writer sustaining his lifelong manners and decorum while writing, privately, about his fears, his needs.

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