Skip to main content

Truths, Slightly Arranged: John Updike’s Uninhibited Fiction

ISSUE:  Spring 2014

In the winter of 1956, a friend of John and Mary Updike had an uncanny experience while reading the New Yorker when, upon opening the magazine, she discovered herself in a short story titled “Snowing in Greenwich Village.” It unfolds during a dinner party hosted by Richard and Joan Maple, a young married couple in Manhattan. From the moment their friend Rebecca—​“a tall, always smiling girl”—​sits down and lets Richard attend to her coat and drink, the story crackles with sexual tension. Gossip is shared, and the peculiar arrangement of Rebecca’s apartment is discussed: She has two roommates, one of whom is a man but not her boyfriend. When it grows late, snow gently falling, Richard offers to walk her a few short blocks home. His excuse is chivalry and to fetch cigarettes for Joan, who encourages him on the errand. Richard and Rebecca walk slowly in the dreamy downtown streets, and upon reaching Rebecca’s apartment, she invites him in. He accepts, trailing up the wooden steps behind her. “Few experiences so savor of the illicit as mounting stairs behind a woman’s fanny,” Updike describes, caroming momentarily out of Richard’s point of view. In the cramped, slanted attic apartment, her bed a bold third presence, Richard and Rebecca stand awfully close. Sensing an opportunity, or an invitation—​it’s not clear—​he does something uncommon for an Updike character: He beats a hasty retreat. “Oh,” the story ends, “but they were close.”

<i>Updike.</i> By Adam Begley. HarperCollins, 2014. 576p. HB, $34.99. Rebecca, Adam Begley observes in his elegant new biography, was modeled on a friend of the Updikes, “and though she accepted the story with polite good grace…her on-​again, off-​again boyfriend berated Updike for his callous and thoughtless behavior. The boyfriend’s harangue was ferocious enough to sink both Mary and John into a weekend-​long funk.” This was certainly not the first time Updike had ferried friends and family into his fiction and experienced some grief on their appearance in print, but he was approaching the territory that would, very soon, make it necessary to keep a “shadow-​bank” of stories at the New Yorker that could not run until the author gave his editor, William Maxwell, a green light—​mainly because the affairs on which they were based remained too hot, too raw still. “Feeling guilty and ashamed,” Begley writes of the author in 1956, “Updike reconsidered two pet theories. The first was ‘that a writer of short stories has no duty other than writing good short stories’; the second that ‘nothing in fiction rings quite as true as truth, slightly arranged.’ ”

In 1956 Updike was just twenty-​three years old, but he had already embarked on one of the longest dominant careers in American letters. The young Pennsylvanian, with his “towers of ambition” that “rose, crystalline, within me,” would rocket to success faster than even he had ever imagined. Within five years Updike had published a collection of verse (The Carpentered Hen), a novel (The Poorhouse Fair), a story collection (The Same Door), and a future American classic (Rabbit, Run)—​not to mention a growing body of short stories unparalleled in their lyric intensity. By his death in 2009, the New Yorker had printed 146 pieces of his short fiction, dwarfing the tallies of writers—​like John Cheever and J. D. Salinger—​who were also associated with the magazine. If Begley’s biography and the newly collected stories reveal anything, it’s that Updike’s encounter in Greenwich Village did very little to shake his inherent urge to eavesdrop on his own life, his experience, his sensory and emotional memory. He went on to do so with a mercilessness so steady the author seems, in retrospect, like one of the most deft domestic spies ever to walk the Earth. Nothing, apparently, was out of bounds—​from his wife’s pubic hair to his many affairs to the explosive dinner-​table discussion that resulted when all this 1960s-​era bed-​swapping finally detonated the family structure in one collapsing meal, a moment rendered in the heartbreaking story “Separating,” the climax of the Maple saga.

During his lifetime, Updike always deflected the question of biography in his work. “I count on people to know the difference between flesh and paper,” he once told the Paris Review, managing to patronize and praise the reader at once. Now there is just paper, and the gap between the two doesn’t look very large, so a question remains: What kind of writer was Updike? The answer lies especially in the collected stories, which neatly bridge fifty years of American life. Their girders and startlingly beautiful undercarriage detail are built directly from the ore of Updike’s life, rapidly smelted and molded into usable shapes. The bold strokes of their design all map onto Updike’s life: the flinty Depression-​era only-​child childhood in Berks County, Pennsylvania, growing up in a farmhouse with a grandmother, a dominant mother, and a teacherly father—​a family of believers; the escape to Harvard, then London, then New York, and a final flight to Massachusetts, from where he would look back on Pennsylvania with extraordinary pathos and no small degree of survivor’s guilt.

Like Marcel Proust, however, Updike is more than a memory eater. He is a stylist doing what a stylist does most grandly—​struggling. Style, in this case, being not just diction but, as Lisa Cohen puts it in her fabulous biography, All We Know, “A way to fascinate oneself and others—​and to transform oneself and the world.” In other words, style is a way of being, to figure out how to be, and to mythologize when necessary. Updike’s talent in his short stories was to do all of this at once by turning the observational intensity of his language onto the flights—​implied or actual—​of his life, in microcosm, his prose like powerful floodlights. Even without Begley’s biography, the three major movements of Updike’s life are well-​known: from Pennsylvania to New York, from New York to Massachusetts, and from one marriage into the next. The short stories were like roads in and out of an essential quarry, where he could hammer at concerns over guilt and God, family and work. It is not an accident that Updike’s most productive periods as a short-​story writer preceded big changes in his life.

<i>John Updike: Collected Early Stories.</i> Library of America, 2013.  955p. HB, $37.50. <i>John Updike: Collected Later Stories.</i> Library of America, 2013. 994p. HB, $37.50. The result, when glimpsing the stories in total, is a body of work far more variegated than expected. He wrote comic stories and plaintive, long-​breath, memory-​saturated stories. He wrote of Pennsylvania but also of Ethiopia and Ireland. Just when readers thought Updike had exhausted a vein, he shifted to a new one, dragging forward his prior concerns in shadows and echoes, applying the same intense observational richness with a determination to see clearly. He invented towns—​like Olinger or Tarbox—​and characters—​Richard Maple, Henry Bech—​to drive the wedge. When there was no wedge, he inched out onto the ledge of new places. When there were no new places left to go, he had finished writing.

He came to his unique voice young because by his early twenties he had been writing seriously for over a decade. In this relentlessness, he took after his mother. Updike often spoke of her as a “would-​be” writer. This was unkind. Begley reminds us that ten of her stories would be published in the New Yorker and collected into two novels put out by mainstream houses. Updike’s earliest memories were of her at her typewriter. He jumped on the same machine and typed his first story at eight years old, and did not stop. As a teenager he beat a steady path to the post box, sending off cartoons and verse to the New Yorker with the hopeful regularity of a sweepstakes addict. He contributed 285 items to the Shillington High School newspaper, and by the time he graduated, a dozen or so of his poems had been published in small magazines and journals. In 1950, he arrowed to Harvard, where, despite showing up with the wrong kind of jacket and too earnestly plying upperclassmen with his framed cartoons from the Shillington High newspaper, he finagled his way into the good graces of the “soft-​spoken aristocrats” who led the humor magazine, the Lampoon. Shortly thereafter, half of the artwork of the magazine was signed by him. In addition to covers and a hundred-​odd cartoons, he would go on to contribute sixty poems and twenty-​five prose pieces. “The Lampoon was Updike,” a classmate remembered to Begley.

This was not wasted work. Updike’s poetry was good training. The torqued pique of light verse, how it revolves around an observation, tented by wordplay, neatly looks, in miniature, like a model for the slick New Yorker fiction and Talk of the Town pieces of the day. William Maxwell, the magazine’s fiction editor, clearly thought so. The two met shortly after Maxwell accepted a story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in late summer 1954, before the newly graduated Updike and his young wife sailed for England for a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing. Maxwell described the young writer in a passage Begley quotes: “Very modest, shy, intelligent humorous youngster, slightly gawky in his manner and already beginning, being an artist, to turn it into a kind of style, by way of self-​defense.” A year later, Updike joined the the magazine’s staff.

By the time he arrived in New York, Updike was a long way from the Pennsylvania hick he pretended to be. He had learned in university from Ernest Hemingway and Salinger’s examples that a story ought to be unadorned, and then filtered this influence through the complicating optics of Proust and Vladimir Nabokov. From the former he learned how deep memory could take him, and the latter, how a jewel-​cut sentence does not have to sink under its lapidary refractions, but may soar on them. Updike’s work, from the very earliest stories on, is full of references to Proust, but scattered with Nabokovian tics. Hyphenated descriptives, like “sugar-​gritty” and “coffee-​dark,” bring a sprung rhythm to sentences, and he often compressed phrases by embedding his metaphors within verbs: “The cave of his skull furs with nonsense,” he wrote in a story, neatly modeled after a television script. He anthropomorphized objects—​“The radiator, hidden in the windowsill by his head, breathed lavishly”—​and mechanized bodily functions.

Updike’s prose was also detail-​sticky from the beginning. Characters drink Lowenbrau, drive Plymouths, and fish Pall Malls from their front pocket. “The Same Door,” published in 1959, is threaded through with such details: the Benny Goodman records and five-​dollar Midtown lunches, the Unamuno rage and Margaret Mead worship. Texans worry over governmental obstacles to natural-​gas pipelines. Nixon’s star sinks while Johnson’s rises. On a very simple level these stories tell you what it was like to be a young married couple in Manhattan in the mid-​to-​late 1950s, with time enough to spare that a concern for social position took on a new weight, right down to how much to spend on a good bottle of wine.

There’s devotion in this wide-​angled gaze at the things in people’s lives. In the 1950s the US had emerged strong from the war, synthetic substances dominated trade, and the idea that we could control our destiny was once again in ascendance. Updike, marveled by all this, also fundamentally operated from a different baseline. “They were Bible readers,” Begley quotes him on his family, “especially my grandfather and my mother, and there was something of viewing their lives as an unfolding book, as a scroll that was being rolled out, and constantly examining it for significance … for God’s fingerprints.” As early as The Same Door, meditations on doubt alternate with an observational posture of devotion. Occasionally, these two modes—​both of which mask their interrogative nature by employing detail—​combine, as in the story “Dentistry and Doubt,” in which a young man in England goes to the dentist and meanders into a spiritual conversation with the man who has propped open his mouth like the hood of a car. Is this all there is in the world, the stories ask, one after the other after the other?

The urgency of this question had already found a snag on marriage in Updike’s early stories. “Ace in the Hole,” which he wrote at Harvard, features an ex-​athlete, much like Rabbit Angstrom, coming home from work with the rangy energy of a body no longer used, and feeling restless. A sign-​drawer in another story, “The Kid’s Whistling,” stays late at work to avoid his wife’s smothering attention. Gripes implicit in behavior become actual complaints, then close calls with another, and then on to fantasies of infidelity. “Well, for God’s sake, I can’t be held accountable for the people I meet in dreams,” says one of Updike’s male characters, who has just punished his wife by telling her of a dream in which he met a woman in a movie theater. When she reacts poorly, he tries frantically to backtrack, soothe her feeling, then resents himself for this capitulation, a scene that is far more interesting than one of simple transgression. “He was safe, of course, as long as they stayed away from the real issue.” The real issue is whether the body and spirit are at odds with one another.

Updike never quite un-​became the Pennsylvanian he had been, no matter how tweeded were his man-​of-​letters vestments. In 1957, he made the second major flight of his life, away from the safety of his New Yorker job and into a period, he hoped, of raising children and writing novels. It was a period, Begley’s biography illuminates, not without difficulty. His poetry was rejected, as were his first attempts at a novel. One does not associate Updike with false starts, but he had them. At least one novel, Home, languishes now in Harvard’s library. Within a year, though, he’d found his wormhole out of small stakes: He’d finally given the fictional Pennsylvanian town he’d circled in his short stories a name, Olinger, and Begley quotes him in a letter to his editors as being “ready to disgorge the whole mass of Pennsylvania.” He gathered himself, and in a five-​year burst he wrote The Poorhouse Fair, Rabbit, Run, and nearly three dozen stories, among which—​“The Happiest I’ve Been,” “Flight,” and “Pigeon Feathers”—​remain his very best. He was sanguine enough about his prospects that he took out a mortgage for an $18,500 home.

As Updike moved farther away from his childhood home, adapting to New England life, he arced homeward in his work. His memory is like an associative Google Map of the place, down to the “shade of flowerpots.” “In Football Season,” which was collected in his third volume, Olinger Stories, contains one of the most plangent glimpses of that seemingly long-​ago past.

We would arrive in Olinger after the drugstores, which had kept open for the first waves of people returning from the game, were shut. Except for the streetlights, the town was dark; it was betranced, like a town in a fable. We scattered, each escorting a girl to her door; and there, perhaps, for a moment, you bowed your face into that silent crescent of fragrance, and tasted it, and let it bite into you indelibly.

There is beauty in the immensity of innocence here, even in the moment of being bit into, like Eve’s apple. But there’s a rot there, too, one that all too soon becomes a kind of morbid fascination in Updike’s fiction, an almost spiritual necrosis visible in the brighter light—​and Updike’s prose was always doctor’s-​office bright. In “Pigeon Feathers,” this fascination raises its head as a kind of terror of death. David, growing up in a town much like the one Updike lived in, is “visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you are drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt into your face.”

Marriage itself becomes a kind of death, even as it partakes of the body’s loveliness. In the early 1960s, Updike begins building up a bank of stories, some of which sat for as long as ten years before being published. Several of them are just a few pages. In “Solitaire,” a man sits alone at home playing the card game he took up shortly after being married, “night after night by the glow of a kerosene lamp on an old kitchen table in Vermont; and at the end of the week he had seen the way that his life must go in the appallingly wide world that had opened before him. He had drawn a straight line from that night to the night of his death, and began walking on it.” As he puts it: “He had married early, to escape the farm, and had rapidly given his wife children, to make his escape irrevocable.” The story proceeds and it turns out the man is contemplating the two women in his life—​his wife and his mistress. He turns them over in his head, like cards, realizing he would not just lose everything, but “his own conception of himself…. He was the son of parents who had stayed together for his sake. That straight line, once snapped, could not be set straight again.”

In the 1960s, Updike, in all his fiction, was most obsessed with infidelity. Begley makes it clear in the biography that Updike had many affairs, one so disastrous that he and his wife were banished from Ipswich, Massachusetts, where they lived at the time, fleeing briefly to the south of France. There was some ecstasy in the stories of this period, but also a spreading darkness about love and sex and the body itself. His stories so often perform a plot-​melody of play and chase against an image-​melody of death and decay. In “The Stare,” a man searches New York City’s streets for his lover, and in one scene he thinks he’s found her. He rushes forward, but as he “drew abreast, timid and prankish, to surprise her profile…she became a wrinkled painted woman with a sagging lower lip.” In “The Morning,” a lover ceases to visit a man for pre-​noon trysts, and he begins to feel “these mornings were aging him.”

Fantastically, in “Transaction,” a man at a conference in an unnamed city brings home a prostitute, with whom he has to unlearn the posture of wooing, which he uses on his mistress, and intimacy, which defines his marriage. He has drunk too much and they struggle mightily, but eventually he gets off, and the hooker slowly gets dressed. The sex has been strange, mildly satisfying, but the cold wind blows hard now. “What she had given him, delicately, was death. She had made sex finite. Always, until now, it had been too much, bigger than all systems, an empyrean as absolute as those first boyish orgasms, when his hand would make his soul pass through a bliss as dense as an ingot of gold. Now, at last, in the prime of life, he saw through it, into the spaces between the stars.”

In his biography, Begley gently reduces his discussion of Updike’s sexual mania to two major affairs, the second of which was to be Updike’s last. The Updikes had sold their home to a man and his wife, and it was with her that Updike embarked on his final leave-​taking. Begley handles this moment with grace, but it feels even the little information the biography provides is too much. The best version of what happened lances through The Maple Stories, only one of which is included in Library of America’s Collected Stories. Their absence, and the near removal of the Bech trilogy, the instrument with which Updike poked fun at his literary life, deprives the Collected Stories of a barking kind of humor, and a more humble form of grace. This diminishment is enhanced by the fact that from the mid-​1970s onward, Updike’s work, even in the stories, was shockingly uneven: at one moment spangled with aphoristic music and lyrical portrayals of grief, in the next cruddy and studded with essentializing and vaguely racist notes about foreign countries based on vacation travel, or pornographic brags from his stud days, as in the story “Cunts.”

Updike’s father died in 1972, and his mother in 1989, and in their loss Updike recovered a coherence in grief that he’d lost through decisions—​like divorce—​he often likened to grief. Death was no longer figurative but real, and its unsymbolic truth both robbed it of a spooky quality and cleared the creeping gothic of Updike’s sentences, in which the specter of death hung heavily around the quotidian, around sex in particular. The stories of Trust Me—written in the wake of divorce, as his family breaks down and reassembles into wounded, nearly adult-​sized shapes—were at last warm again, less inward and self-​haunting. The result, “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” is one of the finest stories ever written about the way a parent’s departure opens a door in one’s soul, one small enough that you must become a child again in order to peer through it and understand what has happened.

And on he wrote—​too much, it’s clear, especially now that he is not here to remain a kind of uber-​beacon of writerly fecundity, always producing. It was an instinct he could not unlearn any more than breathing. He and his second wife, Martha, moved into an enormous mansion on Boston’s North Shore, which Begley describes as tightly controlled, even to the writer’s children. Updike wanted to work without distractions, and he did, continuing his Rabbit saga triumphantly, but writing other books—​such as Brazil, Memories of the Ford Administration, and Toward the End of Time—​of such staggering crappiness that it seemed he was trying to unwrite his place in the American canon. While the literary journals and academies slugged it out in internecine wars, and Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, and Junot Díaz (among others) remade the short story, Updike remained remarkably steady in his mode of threading observational beauty atop a loose plot, moments of the heart’s self-​awareness chronicled with, in the best instances, felicity and attention.

What he didn’t put into stylistic revolutions, though, he plowed into his criticism, and gradually the stories arc back to the sweet spot, the way grace can arise out of loss and leave-​taking, that gave his early fiction—​stories like “The Happiest I’ve Been” and “Snowing in Greenwich Village”—​such acrobatic joy, that feeling of being on the cusp. So morbid for so long, as Updike approached his end, which came suddenly and swift, he was writing his way home again, this time without dread or guilt or self-​loathing. In “The Road Home,” he finds himself back near the textile mills of his hometown, with “all the girls wearing strapless taffeta dresses,” sitting at the diner booth where so much of his life had happened. The jukebox includes “Stardust” and “Begin the Beguine,” and David Kern, who has emerged from his death-​fearing childhood in “Pigeon Feathers” to land on life’s far shore, is not fearful but, finally, grateful. He discovers, through the pain of time passing, that departures and arrivals can be the same thing. And in doing so says what each one of Updike’s best sentences, so faithful to where he was calling from, especially when it came to Pennsylvania, says to us still: “I know where I am now! I’m here.” 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading