The Curious Paradox of John Updike

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A critic once wrote of John Updike’s “seeming inability to write badly.” True enough: even when Updike’s prose is at its most trivial, its most self-satisfied, its most pornographic — and his critics will point out that it is often all of these things — it is always, from a technical standpoint, immaculate.

Given how difficult writing is, and given how much Updike produced in a legendarily prolific career that spanned more than half a century, it’s worth pausing to consider the remarkable fact of Updike’s talent. In terms of constructing beautiful sentences, Updike had few peers. Not just in the years after World War II, or in the 20th century, but in literary history. At a time when writing is spoken of with tedious frequency as a “craft,” Updike, in his metronomic virtuosity, is uniquely deserving of the term.

And yet, almost five years after his death, Updike’s critics often seem to outweigh his admirers, and their main complaint is that same virtuosity. Of course, Updike was subject to charges of favoring style over substance from the moment he was considered a major writer, but it’s the late-Boomer and early Gen-Xer audience that Updike really annoys. In a footnote to his new translation of Karl Kraus’s essays, Jonathan Franzen — the closest contemporary literature comes to a figure of Updikean stature — writes:

Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive process, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist.

Similarly, in a 1998 essay the late David Foster Wallace declared himself “one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans,” and then proceeded to savage Updike, concluding the essay by calling him an “asshole.” And the critic James Wood contended that Updike’s prose “confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough.”

The Library of America has just released its two-volume edition of Updike’s Collected Stories (nicely edited by Christopher Carduff), and while I doubt it will do much to improve the author’s sagging stock, at nearly 2,000 pages, comprising 186 stories published between 1953 and 2009, it offers ample opportunity for pondering Wood’s question, and the larger problem of John Updike: he was incapable of writing badly, but was he capable of writing, for lack of a better word, importantly?

Having read nearly 200 of Updike’s stories in rapid succession, I’m more sympathetic to the critics’ point of view than I had been. While not willing to go as far as Franzen, who argues that Updike was “wasting” his “tremendous, Nabokov-level talent,” I was surprised by how many of Updike’s stories impressed me while I read them, and how few left an impression. One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.

The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to Wood’s question is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.

Still, Updike was capable of art, and if it is disheartening to see how much of that art is concentrated in the early years of his career, when his fiction focused on the still-vital memories of his Pennsylvania childhood — the caricature Updike, the one whose writing is full of explicit sex and overwrought descriptions of the female form, doesn’t show up until the early 1970s, and he is indeed trying — those earliest stories still possess a bracing sublimity. (Not that he never produced strong works later in his career; the stories tracing the collapse of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple — in my opinion, Updike’s greatest work, stronger even than the Rabbit novels — continued well into his later years, but unfortunately, only the first of them appears in the Collected Stories. According to a textual note, the Library of America plans to publish the Maples stories, and the ones about Henry Bech, in a separate collection, an understandable decision that nevertheless weakens the volumes under consideration.)

To my mind, “The Happiest I’ve Been” is the finest of them all. The narrator, John Nordholm, (previously seen in “Friends From Philadelphia”) plans to drive with his high school friend Neil Hovey to Chicago, where he will propose to the girl he loves before returning to school in the east for spring semester. After saying goodbye to John’s parents, Neil reveals that he’d like to go to a New Year’s party in Olinger (the milieu of Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories) before they get underway. They go to the party, and from there to another girl’s house, where they pass the late hours. The night is evocatively drawn, but the crux of the story comes when John and Neil finally leave for Chicago at dawn. On the way to the interstate, they pass John’s house, which they left hours earlier, and Updike captures the oddity of this moment perfectly: “With a .22 I could have had a pane of my parents’ bedroom window, and they were dreaming I was in Indiana.”

They drive on towards Pittsburgh, and here, I’ll defer to Updike:

There were many reasons for my feeling so happy. We were on our way. I had seen a dawn…Ahead, a girl waited who, if I asked, would marry me, but first there was a vast trip: many hours and towns interceded between me and that encounter. There was the quality of the ten a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility — you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element — and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state — as if you had made your life.

For anyone who has been young in America — for anyone who has been young — this passage needs no explication. It is beautiful, and it is certainly enough.

The End of the End of the Frontier

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Reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, you get used to sudden changes in geography. Always convinced that the real party is in full swing elsewhere, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are continually hopping in the car, exclaiming “Yes!” and “Phew!” as they tear off to another city, another coast. Of course, the sadness of On the Road — published in 1957, as the booming interstate highway system was beginning to pump homogeneity through its capillaries — is the characters’ slow realization that things fall apart in one place as well as another, and by the novel’s halfway point, Dean’s urgings to head to the next city inspire a certain weariness in the reader. But there’s one move that makes the reader sit up, for it signals a shift not so much in the novel’s location as in its metaphysics. It’s announced, with no warning, by the minor character Stan Shephard, who poses an innocuous question less than a hundred pages from the novel’s end: “Is it true you’re going to Mexico?”

It is true, and if this is a natural turn for Kerouac’s restless protagonists to take, it also signals that On the Road, which Louis Menand says “made America a subject for literary fiction,” is turning its back on the big, sad nation that is its raison d’être. It’s an uneasy proposition, one that leaves the reader stricken with the sort of helpless nausea felt at the crest of a roller coaster’s hump. Of course, excitement is mixed in there, too. Even if you know little more about Mexico than the drug violence and immigration debates that define it in American news cycles, its name alone connotes some promise of exotic adventure, Montezuma’s gold and so forth. And if you have an ounce of sympathy for Sal and Dean, after so much dreary wandering, you want to believe Dean when he cries, “Man, this will finally take us to IT!”, even though you know it will not. As Sal says, there’s just something different about driving to Mexico: “It was no longer east-west but magic south.”

Two other major American works of this period concurred in this assessment of Mexico’s appeal: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). Though vastly different, these three books — the urtext of the Beat Generation, the great American picaresque, and the definitive modern True Crime account — all contain characters that believe Mexico will cure their American disease. Sal and Dean; Augie March and his lover Thea Fenchel; the murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith — at one point or another, they all locate the American Dream south of the border. And with each duo’s decision to leave the U.S. for Mexico, the queasiness provoked by Stan Shephard’s question arises once again. Why is this? Why don’t the Paris leanings of the Lost Generation or Pynchon’s demented spins of the globe provoke a similar response? The answer has to do with these books’ portrayals of Mexico as the last, best hope for a renewed frontier; their failure to find it marks the end of the end of American writers’ romance with the West.

When Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the frontier in 1893, he made no mention of Mexico, and why would he? Americans have always been less than precise in articulating Mexico’s role in their nation’s Westward Expansion. Mexico ceded an astounding half of its territory to the States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. Dictating terms that followed predictably from the expansionist rapacity that prompted the conflict, the United States acquired California, Nevada, and Utah — as well as most of New Mexico and Arizona and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Even after this grab, Americans continued to take advantage of a border even more porous than today’s leaky boundary, treating Mexico as America’s exotic backyard. “The Border” came to signify less a delineation than a land where the United States shaded into Mexico, an effect seen in the lazy deployment of the term “Western,” used to describe tales that often take place to the south, in Mexico or in territory formerly belonging to it — the Alamo, Rio Bravo, and The Searchers, to name just a few.

The Mexican territories that became American states were much faster to develop than the country they once belonged to, and so to the adventurous American mind of the twentieth century, Mexico appeared as a land of contiguous exoticism, both different from America and under its thumb. In The New Yorker in 1979, the great Mexican writer Octavio Paz observed: “In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests — and these are what they have found.” In one sense, Paz is mistaking an American attitude towards the world in general for an American attitude toward Mexico in particular. But it is true that Americans in Mexico feel a sense of ownership not possible in Europe thanks to distance, an entrenched and “civilized” culture, and a mostly white population.

Paz’s dictum certainly applies to the characters drawn by Kerouac, Bellow, and Capote. They constantly mistake myths for truths, projecting a blend of primitive fetishizing and general touristic ignorance onto their surroundings and calling the result Mexico. Thus it is that Sal can place himself above “the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore,” despite having just presented us with a grinning border official who is that stereotype incarnate: “Welcome Mehico,” he says. “Have good time. … Everything fine. Is not hard enjoin yourself in Mehico.” The same goes for Augie March, who travels to Mexico with his new lover, Thea Fenchel, to train an eagle to hunt. Augie blithely attributes the locals’ enthusiasm for the bird (Thea thinks her endeavor will make for some lucrative National Geographic articles) to “the ancient respect” the bird enjoys “from the old religion and the great class of knights in those days of obsidian sword slaughter that Díaz del Castillo witnessed.” Augie may be better read than Sal and Dean, but he’s hardly better informed.

Where do these ideas come from? As with many twentieth-century American misconceptions, a large share of blame can be yoked to Hollywood. Consider Capote’s description of a Phillips 66 map that the dreamy Perry Smith reads in a diner:
Ink-circled names populated the map. Cozumel, an island off the coast of Yucatan, where, so (Perry) had read in a men’s magazine, you could “shed your clothes, put on a relaxed grin, live like a Rajah, and have all the women you want for $50-a-month!” … Acapulco connoted deep-sea fishing, casinos, anxious rich women; and Sierra Madre meant gold, meant Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a movie he had seen eight times.
Perry Smith was hardly the only American in those years whose image of Mexico was intertwined with Humphrey Bogart; while driving south, Dean invokes “those enormous Sierra Madre mountains we saw in the movies.”

This stuff was in the air. In the 1950s, a group of American film stars that included John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Errol Flynn bought the Hotel Los Flamingos in Acapulco, ushering in an era when Mexico changed from an exciting land of “diseases, robbery, and the dangerous population” (Augie’s words) into an exciting land of marketable adventure and saleable exoticism. “Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds/Down to Acapulco Bay,” sang Frank Sinatra, who began frequenting the resort with the Rat Pack. In the years to come, Acapulco played host to Howard Hughes’ last days, Liz Taylor’s third wedding, and JFK and Jackie’s honeymoon. “I didn’t realize right away how many visitors from the cool and cold were paying their good dough to be here,” says Augie March.

The movies and tabloids lent commercial legitimacy and glamorous appeal to the entitlement and avarice that hadn’t changed since the days of Jimmy Polk. Even if you couldn’t afford to join the party, you could still find a good time in your own price range (like Sal and Dean, who run up a thirty-six dollar tab in a whorehouse) or plan to strike it rich quick like Dick and Perry, whose moneymaking schemes include diving for sunken treasure, deep-sea fishing, and chauffeuring stolen cars. For a time, it works. “This is finally it. The way it ought to be,” sighs Perry, fishing from a boat hired by a wealthy German who takes the fugitives into his patronage.

“Still,” Capote writes, in the language that wields the ethically dubious power of inspiring sympathy for two killers, “he knew that it couldn’t continue — that it was, in fact, destined to stop that very day.”

“For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant,” wrote Frederick Jackson Turner in his Frontier Thesis. In other words, a frontier’s time as a frontier is limited. What these characters think they seek in Mexico is what the theologian Belden Lane in his book Landscapes of the Sacred calls chora (borrowing Plato’s term for “space”) meaning a place of unique power, often of a spiritual character. But, as Paz said, Americans don’t really look for Mexico in Mexico — they look for a more perfect America, at once free of materialism and more conducive to it. This is an untenable quest, and soon, by engaging in the same mad dash for money and luxury as they did in the U.S., Mexico becomes to these characters what Lane calls topos, a space like any other, just a spot on the map. Boredom and disappointment ensue.

“It was one fiesta after another meantime,” says Augie March:
The band plunged in the zócalo, clashed, drummed, and brayed; the fireworks bristled and ran off in strings, the processions swayed around with images. A woman died of a heart attack at a five-day drunk party, and there were scandals. Two young men, lovers, had an argument about a dog and one of them took an overdose of sleeping pills.
In this impassive retelling, you can detect the weariness of settlement, novelty passing from this latter-day frontier like heat from a corpse. At one point, Augie tellingly describes the writers, financiers, and layabouts he encounters in Mexico as “the American colony.” The myths that these Americans sought in Mexico — Augie’s obsidian sword slaughter and Perry’s buried treasure and Sal’s “great, grave Indians” — have been crowded out by the single great truth of gain. “I saw anew how great a subject money is in itself,” Augie says, reconsidering his reasons for coming south.

It’s money that drives Dick and Perry north, back into the jurisdiction of the laws that will ultimately put them to death; they simply run out of it. It’s Augie’s eager libido that destroys the armature of his stay in Mexico, his relationship with Thea, which comes crumbling down with excruciating inevitability. Augie hangs around Mexico, and sees the exiled Trotsky. (In his younger years, Bellow traveled to Mexico specifically to meet Trotsky. His timing was spectacularly bad, arriving the day after an assassin sank an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull.) Augie perpetrates the most vividly-described breakup bender in any novel, before nonchalantly returning home: “Anyhow, I felt now that there was something about the effect of Mexico on me, that I couldn’t hold my own against it any more and had better get back to the States.” This dissembling is typical of Augie; it’s his own desires that are having an effect on him, of course. Mexico represents the buoyant Augie’s lowest point. Though he recovers much more nicely than Sal and Dean or Dick and Perry, it’s no accident that Bellow situates his convalescence in Chicago, the beating heart of Augie’s America; only there can he reorder his priorities and resume his quest for a metaphysical frontier.

And what of Sal and Dean, the wayward pair with whom we began? Their appetites get the better of them, too, as Sal fulfills Emerson’s grim prediction that “Mexico will poison us”: “Then I got fever and became delirious and unconscious. Dysentery.” The restless Dean leaves Sal while he’s laid up, back to New York for (what else?) a woman. “All that again?” asks a crestfallen Sal. “All that again, good buddy,” says Dean.

In these ragged retreats from Mexico lies the fullest answer to the question of why Stan Shephard’s question is so unnerving even before any borders are crossed. These Mexican ventures inspire both fear and hope — the fear of discovering that America is both Death Valley and Gopher Prairie, simultaneously too large and not large enough for our insisting dreams, and the hope that there are more frontiers to discover. Their departures both surrender and reaffirm the American promise that we all want to believe in, even as we deny it; their empty-handed returns only confirm the folly of keeping the faith. In these sad dispatches from Mexico, Kerouac, Bellow, and Capote anticipated the post-Vietnam pessimism about Mexico that artists like Sergio Leone and Cormac McCarthy would make de rigueur. They were the first to spot the evening redness in the south.

Image: Flickr/

Living Out the Day: The Moviegoer Turns Fifty

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Catch-22 has been receiving a lot of press lately for its fiftieth anniversary, and why not? Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has permeated the culture in a way few novels do, its title becoming a catchphrase to readers and non-readers alike.

It also happens to be a very fine book. I certainly thought so when I read it at St. Louis University High, where it had become something of a rite of passage for juniors thanks to the efforts of Mr. Jim Raterman, whose energetic classes were known to include impersonations of B-25 bombers perfected by his upbringing near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Heller’s genius for encasing a humanistic tale in absurdist farce made the book endlessly appealing to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds whose young intellects were fermenting in an all-male prep school environment that put a high valuation on the quick reply, the clever pun, and the high-minded non sequitur. Many of us also happened to be terribly earnest, and Catch-22, with its indictment of war and solicitude of the individual, spoke directly to the bits of Jesuit social teaching that we picked up in theology class. The book felt decidedly important to us.

Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22’s wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me.

F. Scott Fitzgerald thought “the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Other than Fitzgerald’s own works, I’ve never read a novel whose power lies so fully not in the course of being read, but in the astral glow of having been read. When I completed The Moviegoer for the first time, I was at a loss to explain the significance of the 242 pages I’d just traversed, but I knew they had been important. I felt the novel working on me in strange ways, like a slow-release drug. That so much of The Moviegoer’s effect is felt when it’s not being read can be attributed not to some defect in Percy’s prose, but rather to the nature of the novel’s moral project.

That project is fixed in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Kierkegaard that Percy takes as his lodestar: “…[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” This is the condition that the narrator, Jack “Binx” Bolling, finds himself in at the novel’s opening, and it is the condition in which Percy keeps his narrator for most of the book; only upon the book’s completion does the reader realize just how mired Binx really is. Binx’s life is characterized by a vague, not altogether unpleasant sense of discontent; he’s unsure of his purpose in life, and his inability to discern it is both sweet and enervating. He devotes most of his energy to “the search,” an ill-defined quest for an ill-defined higher truth: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. …The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

In this formulation of Binx’s preoccupation, Percy sounds like a contemporary who was also explicitly in search of ultimate meaning: Saul Bellow. Unlike Bellow’s characters, however, Binx makes good on his threats to stiff-arm society. Bellovian heroes like Charlie Citrine and Moses Herzog see the everydayness of life as both working against and essential to their own searches; in the end, they can never foreswear community. Binx has no such qualms. He calls himself “a model citizen” because he enjoys paying his bills and renewing his licenses on time, but he uses his conscientiousness in these matters as an excuse to avoid any other form of civic activity. His formidable aunt, who urges him to enter medical school, asks, “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain and to make a contribution?” To which Binx responds, “No’m.” He treats his brokerage job as a game, has serial affairs with secretaries he sees as interchangeable, and, in the novel’s climax, fails to recognize the precarious mental state of his cousin Kate. He floats around in a sort of dreamlike state, bemused and terrified by the world. Fittingly, he lives on a street called Elysian Fields; like the dim realm the Greeks imagined for their deceased heroes, Binx’s New Orleans is neither perdition nor paradise. In an indeterminate world, Binx is convinced only of the importance of his search. “[N]ot for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder,” he declares.

Such an assertion sounds off-putting in its solipsism, but in the context of the work as a whole, the reader is inclined to support Binx thanks to Percy’s refusal of irony. To revive the Bellow comparison: Bellow’s characters are comically solipsistic and hapless, and even a book as tightly locked within the first person as Herzog leaves room for the reader to laugh at the narrator’s overeducated lack of self-awareness. Percy wrestles this outlet away from the reader, forcing him to perform Kierkegaard’s insight along with Binx. Against his better instincts, the reader takes pleasure in sharing Binx’s aimlessness, though it quickly becomes clear that he ought not to. Early in the novel, Binx says, “Everything is upside-down for me,” but this is inaccurate. “Upside-down” describes a state of inverted order, yes, but a state of order nevertheless. Things aren’t reversed for Binx so much as they are polysemic, freighted with too much mysterious possibility, both beautiful and alienating. Even his confusion lacks order. Speaking enviously of his aunt, who is dismayed at the deterioration of Southern gentility, Binx says:
For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense. …It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it.
But alas, Binx can only look through his aunt’s eyes for so long; when looking through his own, an action as simple as enrolling in medical school threatens the search — would pose a threat to the world’s beauty, while simultaneously risking meaninglessness amidst the vastness of the universe. “Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss,” Binx says. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Waking from the dream bears costs that Binx is unwilling to bear.

The reader, too, is reluctant to awaken. Who hasn’t yearned for a life free of banality’s demands? Realizing that the search itself is what poisons Binx is one of the book’s aforementioned after-effects. Percy works to make indolence alluring, reserving some of his most lyrical writing for Binx’s paralyzing reveries. Here’s Binx, recalling his college days:
…I had spent the four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.
It’s a lovely rendering of a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and it’s also an appealing description of what sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. What’s not so evident beneath Percy’s hushed, precise prose is that this passage points directly back to the epigraph. Here is despair, well hidden.

Appropriately, it is the source of so many American dreams, the movies, that provides ready fuel for Binx’s reveries. Movies limn his reality; he claims to have no memories of his own: “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the ground dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” And he depends on films to confirm his existence, a phenomenon he dubs “certification”:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
To describe The Moviegoer’s style as “cinematic” in any conventional sense would be a stretch (unless one has the cinema of Godard in mind). But there is a way in which Percy’s novel is reminiscent of film. So tight is Percy’s control over our emotional response to his work, so closely does he make it hew to Binx’s, that reading The Moviegoer is not unlike seeing the world through the ruthless eye of the camera, the lens’s vision substituted for our own.

I would be remiss to discuss The Moviegoer without a word about the book’s theology; for better or for worse, Percy is first and foremost known as a Catholic writer. Here, autobiography may be helpful.

I read The Moviegoer during the spring break of my freshman year of college, two-thirds of the way through a difficult year. My dad and I traveled to Jupiter, Florida to watch the Cardinals in spring training. What was only a notion during childhood visits to Florida now blossomed into a fully formed realization: with the exception of the ballpark, Florida filled me with dread. The strip malls, the prevalence of faded pastel colors, the salt-laced air that lashed everything — these all inescapably suggested decay.

The crisis came on Saturday night, when we went to Mass. Unfamiliar churches are also anxiety-provoking environments for me, and Jupiter’s was worse than most: its garish white marble and overwhelmingly old congregation gave it the feel of a mausoleum for the living. Listening to the priest go on in English rendered incomprehensible by a thick accent, the brand of Catholic humanism I’d carefully crafted in the amniotic environs of high school gave way like a weak levee before a flood. Everything that could conceivably be called meaningful seemed suddenly contingent, including meaning itself. For the better part of an hour, I lost all my faith, Catholic and otherwise.

Back at the hotel, I took refuge in The Moviegoer. No longer did I see Binx as a “strange man,” as I called him in several margin notes; I saw a version of myself. In the Binx who spent his college days mooning about on the fraternity porch, I saw the young man who had thus far spent college standing against the wall at parties and walking home alone, wondering why he couldn’t make his new school feel like home. In the Binx who shunned all social obligations, I saw the kid who kept his classmates at a wary length, failing to see the necessity of relationships. And in the Binx who yearns to find his role in life, I saw the young writer who could no longer see the point of writing, because some day the sun would wink out, and all the words would disappear.

As melodramatic as it sounds, such was my state of mind that spring, and for most of my first two years of college. The Moviegoer didn’t heal me, but it did make me believe in healing once again, in large part because I was comforted by the fairly obvious truth that Walker Percy had traveled this lonely path before me. A Catholic convert, a medical doctor, and a devotee of Kierkegaard, Percy hardly lived by blind faith. When I wrote earlier that The Moviegoer achieves its powerful effect by shutting off all views of its offstage workings, I wasn’t being entirely precise: one senses the author’s intimate knowledge of the sort of bewilderment that Binx and the reader are made to feel. In 1987, Percy described his Christian existentialism for The Paris Review:
I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.
“The problem of living out the rest of the day” — it was exactly the problem I was facing in Florida, from the second we left the ballpark; and it was exactly the problem I was facing in Chicago, from the second I finished my daily reading in Adam Smith or Plato. Percy treated this problem seriously, and I was grateful to him for this. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach, for instance, Bellow’s thumbing his nose at the problem. For Bellow, laughter is crucial to living out the rest of the day; it is a form of resistance. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character wonders, “Or is the laugh at nature — including eternity — that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will.” But to Percy, laughter is a sad expression of our reluctance to go along with nature, too solemn to satirize. Thus, Binx’s wry description of his uncle is also in some ways a rueful description of himself: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.”

Binx is hardly an exemplary Catholic, but he desperately wants to believe in some higher power beyond the material world. And here is the trouble: his desire for the existence of a God figure is rooted not in any hope in an afterlife that would plug the hole of death, but in a need that this world, with its unsettling mixture of beauty and transience, have some ultimate meaning. Like most people, Binx only intermittently grasps death as a reality, and this failure lends Binx’s life its desultory quality: since he has all the time in the world, he can spend his days scanning the horizon for a signal from another world.

The Moviegoer didn’t shake me from my melancholy immediately, but it did help me to recognize that I was on the same terms with my depression as Binx is with his search; inhabiting it was comfortable in the way that staying in bed all day is comfortable. When I decided to transfer after my second year of college, I wrote about The Moviegoer in my application essay, not because the book had directly spurred my decision to leave Chicago, but because the memory of it, carried around for a year, pricked me as long as I was content to simply mark time. Transferring was for me not simply a change in schools; it was the first time I’d acted out of faith in years, and I wanted Walker Percy to get his due.

No Satisfaction: Keith Richards and the Rock Memoir

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Rock-and-roll memoirs are among the most persistently disappointing of literary subgenres. Like athletes, rock musicians are rarely articulate about their craft. Both groups have easy recourse to common bodies of stale jargon—athletes give glory to God and say they “just went out and gave 110%”; rockers are all about the music, are glad to be clean, and didn’t really mean to suggest in their last interview that they were ambivalent about success. Genius that relies on fleeting inspiration, gut feeling, and unthinking improvisation is ill suited to the slow, reflective process of writing. It takes an outsider to get inside. Observers like John McPhee, John Updike, and Gay Talese have done this with sports. But rock music has eluded even serious writers. When Rolling Stone sent Truman Capote on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972, he complained that there was simply nothing to write about, and never filed.

Capote’s work ethic had certainly eroded by then, but even the canonical body of book-length rock writing, by the likes of Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth, and Nick Tosches, never feels like more than the musings of very smart devotees about frequently inane artists. Nothing essential is transmitted. Read Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, and you understand baseball. Read Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, and you have a headache. If something essential about rock music eludes capture by writers as fine as the ones I’ve listed, it positively dissipates when the musicians themselves try to explain it.

Into the long and prosaic line of rock star autobiographies comes Life, by Keith Richards (co-written by James Fox), which will be released on October 26th and which is excerpted in the most recent issue Rolling Stone. I’ve had high hopes for Keith’s autobiography, and not only because I’m a Stones fan. Rock autobiographies that aren’t Bob Dylan’s Chronicles fall into two equally hollow categories:

1.) The sentimental redemption tale, in which our hero discovers the blues in his small town in rural England or northern Minnesota, finds success, finds that this success comes too early and too fast, uses a lot of drugs and alienates a lot of people, finally cleans up, and unconvincingly assures us that he now knows what satisfaction is. Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography and the popular film adaptations of the lives of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash fall into this category.

2.) The raunchy, no-apologies tell-all, in which the rock star has a lot of sex, takes a lot of drugs, and refuses to repent doing either. Gene Simmons’s Kiss and Make-Up is the benchmark here, though elements of the tell-all are essential to any mainstream rock autobiography.

Keith’s life presents a chance to avoid the dual-track stagnation. For one thing, Keith Richards doesn’t deal in redemption; survival is his game. He’s cleaned up but still seems like an outlaw. This isn’t because he refuses to apologize, but because, by force of personality, he’s kept beyond the cultural discourse wherein fans simultaneously crave tales of backstage debauchery and demand apologies for them. Only Dylan has been so successful at staying above the public’s wildly oscillating morals. And while we’re speaking of debauchery, Keith’s addictions could be legitimate points of interest. The needles-and-groupies portions of most rock books tend to devolve into numbly pornographic lists. But Keith’s sustained cocaine and heroin usage has become so legendary that it might be interesting to know how he didn’t die.

As it turns out, the answer makes Keith sound like Warren Buffett telling you how he made his money. Richards and Fox write:

It’s not only the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival to. I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me…Maybe that’s a measure of control, and maybe I’m rare in that respect. Maybe there I have an advantage.

That’s it. Keith Richards survived because he had a sense of moderation, and because he could afford the really good stuff.

Not only is this passage laughably anticlimactic, it just doesn’t sound like Keith. This is not to fault James Fox; his task was nigh impossible. Richards is one of the better interviews in rock and roll. His memories change a lot from interview to interview, but he is amusing and tries to be honest. His appeal, however, depends on his gravelly voice and his erratic deportment. Abstracted to the page and filtered through a co-author, things Keith would say tend to sound silly: “The travelling physician we’ll call Dr. Bill, to give it a Burroughsian ring.” Just as often, the excerpts don’t sound like Keith at all, as when he suddenly morphs into a frat boy: “No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”

As that last quote suggests, Life does not refrain from the obligatory relation of prurient details. There is indeed a lot of sex in the Rolling Stone excerpts. Even the sex that might have been interesting is degraded. Of his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole from soon-to-be-deceased bandmate Brian Jones, Keith says, “I still remember the smell of the orange trees in Valencia. When you get laid with Anita Pallenberg for the first time, you remember things.” Spoken like someone who doesn’t remember; everyone knows Valencia smells like oranges. Of another sexual encounter with Pallenberg, Keith says, “Phew.”

The excerpts do offer insight into another of Keith’s tortured and talked-about relationships: the one he’s maintained for forty years with Mick Jagger. The Glimmer Twins’ dynamic tends to be inscrutable, and Keith offers a bit of directness. Jagger, he muses, was jealous of Keith’s friendships with other men. He felt like he owned Keith. “…I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate,” Richards says. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

Or are we? As interesting as all this is, anyone who’s read even a few interviews with Jagger or Richards knows that there is no easy way to describe their friendship; the pair is always saying, “Yes, but…” Every blanket statement that makes for a nice block quote comes with a qualifier that does not. This is true of any subject, from Keith Richards to George Washington. Good biographers use nuance to approximate a life; they bring us closer to how a person lived. And a serious autobiographer can draw us even nearer to understanding, for no barriers of consciousness need surmounting; the author is already inside. But rock stars are subject to a specific set of demands, and by the nature of their work, they’re disposed to give us what we want. And as long as we desire accountings of every grain of cocaine and tallies of every groupie, we will remain in the audience, watching.