0-fer, part 2

I never read anything by John Updike — who died of lung cancer today at 76 — either. I hear those Rabbit novels are supposed to be good. Any recommendations?

4 Replies to “0-fer, part 2”

  1. I not only read the Rabbit tetralogy, I not only read three of the four twice, I read half a dozen other Updike novels, some of his essays and a few of his short stories. Few authors could compete with his best sentences; he was an astonishing phrasemaker. “Rabbit, Run,” in my opinion, is an American classic. One of my professor’s at Columbia went out of his way to insist that American writers after Melville are simply not concerned with God; Updike was deeply concerned with God as well as the human need for a higher power. With our place in the hierarchy of things. Although I’m an atheist, I admired his desire to take on big questions. “Rabbit, Run” explores them through a character who is, basketball skills aside, pretty average and pretty conservative (he remains a Republican till his death in the last book). In “Rabbit, Run,” Updike also takes a situation that repeated itself so often in the US–the pregnant girlfriend and the shotgun wedding–it could be an American archetype rather than a stereotype and portrays brilliantly Rabbit’s sense of being trapped, his need to “do” something with his life (in spite of the fact he now has a family to support and he has to take any job a high school grad can get), his general frustration, Rabbit’s wife’s feeling of betrayal while Rabbit tries to sort out his confusion, and all in all believably illustrates one of Updike’s general dictums: “There are no outward consolations for the inner, intimate appetites.” For me, this connects “Rabbit, Run” to a piece of timeless literature it’s hard not to admire: “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” It’s hero, two thirds god, is doomed to die by his mortal third and there, 4,000 years ago, the existential angst we are still dealing with: We have the desires of gods but the limitations of human beings.

    I highly recommend “Rabbit, Run.” But “Rabbit Redux,” which should not be read without first reading the prequel, is the best of the series. A reader can happily stop there. “Rabbit is Rich” won the Pulitzer but it’s not as good as its predecessors. Rabbit at Rest is the weakest of the four, i think. In any event, Updike was a truly great writer in my estimation. He wrote superb fiction, penetrating essays, and fine poems. yes, he wrote some junk, too–The Witches of Eastwick comes to mind. Some of his concepts failed or were lazily carried out. But at his best, he was a far, far superior writer to many whom the Nobel committee has seen fit to lionize (Orhan Pamuk is probably the least deserving of them all in recent years, and it’s criminal to have given it to this 54-year-old with a grand total of SEVEN books to his name while Updike was still alive).

    When I heard from my sister Updike had died, the first thing I did was check out Virtual Memories. I knew there’d be at least a little discussion of his death. I hope there is more.

  2. I am certain without looking that the Ted Williams piece for The New Yorker is on the Internet somewhere. I think that’s the one where he describe some young woman he encounters as looking like an under-developed photo of a redhead.

    Rabbit, Run is the important one, for sure.

  3. (Indeed he does, Tom.)

    “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is in the Dawidoff baseball anthology, along with that Murray Kempton piece about the Polo grounds I mentioned when last we spoke on the phone. Those two pieces alone are worth the price of admission; not to mention Bill Veeck’s account of the Eddie Gaedel episode, Plimpton on Aaron hitting 715, and Stephen J. Gould on The Streak, James Maxwell’s “Shine Ball…”

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