by Roger Angell
The New Yorker
Colleagues for more than half a century, writer-editor partners for more than half that time, John Updike and I were close at a fixed distance—he at home north of Boston, I in my New Yorker office near Bryant Park—but spoke voluminously by telephone, by manuscripts and galley proofs, and also via his typed, cheerful two-and-a-half-by-five-and-a-half white postcards that bore his pale-blue name and address hand-stamped in the northwest corner. Now and then he would turn up at the office, startling me once again with his height and his tweeds, that major nose, and his bright eyes and up-bent smile; he spoke in a light half whisper and, near the end of each visit, somehow withdrew a little, growing more private and less visible even before he turned away. The fadeaway, as I came to think of it, may have had to do with his exile from his own writing that day, while travelling; the spacious writing part of him was held to one side when not engaged, kept ready for its engrossing daily stint back home. Informally august, he stayed young after his hair turned white, but the additions of fame and a vast work now made him seem Colonial, ready for the portrait on a postage stamp.
A similar sense of shift and distracting clarity often overtook a reader in one of Updike’s stories when an ordinary enough event or small-town American scene—a slight earthquake, a 5.4 on the Richter scale, awakening a man at home in bed in the early morning; a mother on her way to work in the nineteen-thirties running for a streetcar in Pennsylvania; a man in his late fifties outside his living room in the winter finding the moons of Jupiter with his new home telescope—slides to another breadth and meaning in the space of a sentence or two. This is what Updike has had in mind for us all along. He invites us into his story and walks us easily along; all is recognizable and reassuringly alive, but then—we’ve had no warning—we’re seized with a flooding fresh knowledge, in the same fashion that sadness or some ancient night remembrance can sometimes take us in its teeth. Updike was in his twenties and thirties when most of his seventeen stories about the Maples were being written, but his expert and unpatronizing account of a suburban marriage—husband and wife, neighbors and kids, meals and affairs and politics and anxiety—also carried this double view. There’s something terrifying about it all, because these young people, parents and children alike, are such beginners, not ready for so much life.
Updike’s writing is light and springy, the tone unforced; often happiness is almost in view, despite age or disappointments. He is not mawkish or insistently gloomy. Death is frequently mentioned but for the time being is postponed. Time itself is bendable in these stories; the characters are aware of themselves at many stages. This is Updike country: intelligent and Eastern, mostly Protestant, more or less moneyed. We understand and read on, and then—and then a middle-aged married man named Fanshawe remembers how he had “ceased to fear death—or, so to say, to grasp it”—at the moment when he first slept with a woman named Lorna Kramer. Or the young father, Richard Maple, at the end of a day when he and his wife, Joan, have been explaining to their young children that they are going to separate and try living apart for the summer, ending their marriage at least for now, is telling the news to his teen-age son, in bed and just home from a rock concert, and the teary boy stops him with a word: “Why?” He has forgotten why. Or that young woman from the past—Updike’s mother without a doubt, but seen this time as the mother of a man named Joey in a long 1990 story, “A Sandstone Farmhouse”—“running to catch the trolley, the world of the thirties shabby and solid around her, the porches, the blue midsummer hydrangeas, this tiny well-dressed figure in her diminishing pocket of time, her future unknown, her death, her farm, far from her mind.”
Updike’s sentences are fresh-painted. In all his writing, critical or fictional or reportorial, he is a fabulous noticer and expander; he’s invented HD. So armed, he felt free from the start to take up and engage with all that lay within the range of his attention and put it down on paper. He had never to my knowledge written about sports when, on a morning in late September, 1960, he was stood up by a woman in Boston with whom he had an assignation and instead went to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox, in the final home game of Ted Williams’s career. Ted hit a home run in his last at-bat, and Updike came home and wrote “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and sent it off to the magazine: the most celebrated baseball piece ever. The text grew not just out of the event but from Updike’s youthful attachment to the Splendid Splinter; when he decided to leave New York and The New Yorker, in 1957, and move his young family to the suburbs, he chose Boston, as he later explained, in part to be closer to Ted Williams. My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line, like the one he slips in when Williams fails to doff his cap after circling the bases in the wake of that homer: “Gods do not answer letters.”
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