When my first novel was published in the pre-snark summer of 1992, the reviews knocked me out. In a good way. Not only did they come from all over – from Germany and England, from Albuquerque and Atlanta, from Oakland and Milwaukee and Detroit – but they were uniformly thoughtful, generally positive and occasionally over the moon. Even impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times said nice things, favorably comparing my tale about 1950s Detroit to John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels.
But one reviewer flat got the book better than all the others. His review in the Washington Post Book World ended with this summation of the novel’s intentions: “It’s a vivid and entertaining expedition in the literary quest for the exact moment when the Streets of Gold began to transmute into base metal.”
Precisely. I have always been fascinated by the moment when things pivot. The moment when something happens – sometimes something cataclysmic, but just as often something negligible or even imperceptible – something that forever changes the course of an individual life, a love affair, a game, a war, the fate of a corporation or government, a way of life. In my novel, I posited that the technicolor boom year of 1954 was the moment when General Motors, the biggest, richest and most powerful industrial enterprise in human history, began to be eaten alive by its own prosperity, provincialism, myopia and hubris. The Book World’s reviewer wrote that the novel “paints a disturbingly accurate picture of an industrial leviathan rolling fat on the profits of its biggest year, oblivious to the faint rumble from the factories of the Far East and the cancerous cells feeding on its own vitals.” Of course in the summer of 1992 neither the reviewer nor I dreamed that General Motors had begun its long slide into bankruptcy.
The reviewer’s name was Loren D. Estleman, and he was identified as the author of the Detroit Trilogy: Whiskey River, Motown and King of the Corner. I had never heard of Estleman or his books, but I typed him a thank you letter and mailed it to the Washington Post Book World. To my surprise a typewritten letter came back from Estleman with a Michigan postmark. I replied. He replied again. And just like that, a correspondence was born.
Loren Estleman and I are still pen pals today. There’s no other word for it. We’re a couple of writers whose bond is built on two things: an admiration for each other’s work; and the letters we’ve been exchanging, with surprising, almost stubborn regularity, for nearly twenty years. We’re pals, in the loftiest sense of that humble word.
As I learned early on, Estleman is not only a colorful and faithful correspondent, he’s also an almost scarily prolific writer of novels, short stories and reviews. Combining the street smarts of Elmore Leonard with the work ethic of Joyce Carol Oates, Estleman has published more than 60 novels, most notably Westerns and crime novels featuring an engagingly gruff Detroit private eye named Amos Walker. Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection, a handsome 637-page hardcover, has just been published by Tyrus Books. In the introduction, Estleman describes Walker as “a postmodern knight errant slaying his ogres one at a time armed with nothing but a revolver and a laminated license.” I would add that Walker’s arsenal also includes an amused and amusing appreciation for the eternal venality of the human soul. It would not be unfair to call Estleman a genre writer and I doubt that he would bristle at the label, but I prefer to think of him, with no small amount of admiration, as a working pro. The son of a truck driver, he regards writing as his job, and he approaches it with care, respect, iron determination, a sharp eye for what will sell (and what will not), and something I recognize as love.
As you might expect, our letters have frequently touched on the joys and vexations of the writing life – news of sales and rejections; frustrations with editors and proofreaders and agents; what makes a good book title; tips on other writers we like (and dislike); what we’re reading at the moment. But there has also been much back-and-forth about topics large and small that have nothing to do with writing – family news, including the deaths of our fathers; our shared love of baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers; Estleman’s need to replace the leaky roof on the house he shares with his wife, the writer Deborah Morgan; news of our travels; musings on terrorism, politics, our shared distrust of technology, and the decline of the American auto industry along with so many other facets of our national life, including the middle class, day baseball, civility and, of course, the art of letter writing. In essence, we’ve been having an evolving, open-ended conversation on paper for the past two decades.
Like his books, Estleman’s letters are written in a street vernacular that is all at once tough and tender, pissed-off and amused, world-weary and full of wonder – and very funny. Here he is, for example, on a family medical problem:
My mother had a heart attack a month ago, is staying with us while she recuperates, which she’s doing at an alarming pace, the way David McCallum’s intellect kept increasing in that old “Outer Limits” episode. She’s a wonderful guest, but she’s faunching at the bit to get back to the old farmhouse and her daily routine, and it will be good to get our lives back. She’d be there by now if my brother weren’t proceeding at a crippled snail’s pace swamping out and remodeling her place so she won’t run her walker over lethal dust bunnies or the odd Lincoln log.
And here’s Estleman’s reaction after I interviewed Robert B. Parker for a newspaper article and reported that I found Spenser’s creator to be a colossal gas bag:
I got a nice quote out of Parker once, so I don’t like to bad-mouth him, but it’s been clear to me for some time that he lost interest in Spenser early on and has been essentially writing ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY since A Savage Place. I never agreed with Spenser’s philosophy that he could keep his own hands clean by letting Hawk do his dirty work, and join with the legions of readers who have been begging Parker for years to kill off Susan Silverman. He’s too good a writer to squander his talents on this worn-out series.
Estleman and I were born less than six weeks apart. Since I’ve struggled to publish two novels while he has seen dozens into print, his pace of production naturally came up:
Now, I don’t write fast, just steady… Writing pace is a metabolic thing. It took Margaret Mitchell ten years to write Gone With the Wind, while Joyce Carol Oates is entirely capable of writing ten books in one year. Whether GWTW is ten times better than any of those just because its author worked at a slower pace is one of those questions critics waste far too much time trying to answer. I’m comfortable writing two books a year (and) I try to take time off between books, but after a few days I’m scaling the walls. I still work on manual typewriters.
This last sentence is significant. Estleman’s letters are always typewritten, single-spaced, remarkably free of typos. He refuses to buy a computer, though his wife has created a website to help sell his books. I still write on a manual typewriter too, a Royal. Our typewriters are not a pose. We learned to use them when we were young, and we find that they are still the best tools for building sentences – the feel of fingertips on the keyboard, the gunshot reports of keys smacking the platen, the ding! at the end of each line. In his most recent letter Estleman wrote:
I own fifty typewriters, including some museum pieces well over a century old. The 1967 Olympia is for manuscripts, this 1923 Underwood for correspondence and the occasional short story. They never break down, I can fix the very few things that do go wrong (an extremely rare occurrence), and I work through power failures, thunderstorms, and viruses. Best of all, I’m self-contained. I’ve never had a telephone conversation with anyone in India. I have little use for the Net and no confidence in it…(and) don’t ask me about blogs. That time and energy should be spent on one’s work.
This doesn’t mean Estleman and I are Luddites or cheesy romantics. It’s both simpler and more complicated than that. It means we don’t believe that faster is necessarily better, and we’re distrustful of a bill of goods that our gadget-drunk culture has swallowed whole, the illusion that technology has some magical power to improve our lives. Estleman and I are essentially conservative animals who distrust the notion, so prevalent today, that all things can be improved with the right technology, the right information, the right management, the right laws. While mankind strives to improve itself to death, some of us want no part of it. In a 1992 interview in the New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone can live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion can be the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” It did not surprise me to learn that McCarthy writes on an Olivetti manual. Sometimes a typewriter is more than just a typewriter.
McCarthy’s words reminded me of Marshall Frady’s description of the novelist Jesse Hill Ford: “Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford…worked out of an older understanding of man – that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable…”
I saved the letters I’ve received from Loren Estleman and a few other correspondents over the years. As I re-read them recently, I realized, with dismay, that I’m no longer the letter-writing machine I used to be. I know why. Some of my more faithful correspondents have died – most notably my father and godfather, former newspapermen who wrote elegant typewritten letters – while others switched to e-mail and some simply quit responding to my letters. In time, I stopped writing to people who didn’t write back, and I started replying to e-mails with e-mails for the simple reason that they deserve no better. As I re-read Estleman’s letters, I was surprised to realize he’s not only my oldest and most faithful pen pal – he’s my last pen pal.
One could argue that writing is writing – it’s all communication – whether it’s scratches on a cave wall, glyphs in stone, ink on papyrus, pencil on paper, typed characters on bond stationery, or digits in the ether. I disagree. In writing and reading, no less than in art, the medium of creation and consumption is critical to a work’s effect. That’s not to say that writing longhand is better than writing on a typewriter, or that writing on a typewriter is better than writing on a laptop; rather, it’s to say that each of these acts is different from the others and will yield different types of prose. All writers and even the most casual readers sense this. At every reading I’ve attended, an audience member invariably asks the author: “How do you write? Longhand? On a computer?” And every author has a different answer. Many are downright fetishistic about their mode of composition. A recent New York Times article about Cynthia Ozick’s new novel, Foreign Bodies, noted that she writes “in longhand on a Sears Roebuck desk once owned by her brother.” I’m sure her books would be very different if she wrote them on a computer – maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different.
Similarly, tapping out an e-mail and hitting the Send key (or texting with your opposable thumbs) produces a different effect from composing a letter, revising it, putting it in an envelope and mailing it to someone. And opening that envelope and reading that letter is a different experience from reading an e-mail or a text message. It simply is. It’s more tactile, more suspenseful, more personal – and more likely leave a lasting impression. When writing an e-mail, I find I write much faster and with less thought and feeling than when I write a letter. I even know people who intentionally leave typos and mangled grammar in their e-mails, a shorthand way of saying they’re much too busy – and important – to waste time with proofreading or a spell-check.
I have a German friend who thinks I’m dead wrong to argue that traditional letters are superior to e-mail. She has lived in New York City since the 1980s and has a daughter, and now a five-year-old granddaughter, living in Germany. “It depends on why you write,” she argues. “If you just want to be in contact, an e-mail brings you closer because it’s more immediate and you don’t hesitate to write unimportant thoughts. It’s not filtered by literary pretensions, and therefore I think you’re much closer to that person. My daughter and I have had the Atlantic Ocean between us for 25 years. Phone calls used to cost a couple of dollars a minute and letters take a week to arrive. My daughter and I have become much, much closer since the advent of e-mail and Skype.”
Fair enough. But maybe the world of written communication could use a bit more literary pretension, or at least more attention to such trifles as grammar, syntax and spelling. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Amis opened his review of Philip Larkin’s new book of letters with this acid obituary: “The age of the literary correspondence is dying, slowly but surely electrocuted by the superconductors of high modernity. This expiration was locked into certainty about 20 years ago; and although William Trevor and V.S. Naipaul, say, may yet reward us, it already sounds fogeyish to reiterate that, no, we won’t be seeing, and we won’t be wanting to see, the selected faxes and e-mails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.”
While I was writing this essay, my second-to-last pen pal, a former newspaper colleague in North Carolina, wrote me an e-mail to let me know he will soon be visiting New York City and wants to get together. We’ve been corresponding, off and on, for 30 years. He used to write letters on a typewriter but eventually shifted to a computer, printing out each letter and then putting it in an envelope and mailing it to me. It was a debased form of the art, but I learned to live with it. Lately, though, it’s been all e-mail all the time. His latest was a dry list of his plans for the impending New York trip – visits to museums, galleries, a concert, a book awards dinner. He closed the e-mail sheepishly: “Apologies for this degenerate and uncivilized mode of communication. My printer remains unattended to as I continue to contemplate a major computer overhaul. I think I’ll decline. Man, you’re right. This e-mail shit drains the life out of letter writing.”
While I’m dismayed that I’m down to my last pen pal, I’m also grateful that every time I write Loren Estleman a letter, he writes one back. Saul Bellow understood my gratitude. In 1989 he wrote to an old friend: “I send you a mere booklet, and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style. I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.”
Yes, I’m lucky to still have one such friend.
I’ve found myself a bit concerned, lately, with questions of place. Specifically, will it be glaringly obvious to the casual reader of my as-yet-unfinished third novel, much of which is set in the Florida suburbs, that my entire experience of the state of Florida consists of two lightning-strike maneuvers in and out of Boca Raton for the purpose of attending Bat Mitzvahs?
I’ve never been in Florida, it occurs to me, for longer than 36 hours at a stretch. Several of those hours were spent in the airport. Several other of those hours were spent watching second-cousins-by-marriage (unless those were first cousins by marriage once removed? I’ll admit to a certain haziness on the topic of genealogical terminology) read their Torah selections in brutally modern synagogues and flowery rented halls in the outer suburbs. I think I’ve built in a little leeway by virtue of the fact that the town I’m setting the book in is entirely fictional, but still: what if there’s some obvious and huge part of the Florida experience that I’m missing? What if, for example, Floridians have a secret handshake? This is the kind of thing that I fret about.
Over these past few months I’ve been working my way through John Updike’s Rabbit series, which takes place mostly in the impeccably-rendered and entirely fictional town of Brewer, PA. His papers were full of notes on the town, photographs of houses and businesses that would serve as models for the homes and establishments in the books. The place is vividly real and wholly anchored to this earth. I often think that Brewer is what novelists should aspire to: a town so completely, boringly alive in all its mundane details and bus routes and neighborhoods, a place with such specificity that you’re startled to find out later that it doesn’t exist.
Regardless of whether or not a setting exists in the real world, establishing a novel’s physical landscape is difficult. In her debut novel Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles, Kira Henehan handles this problem quite neatly by dispensing with place altogether. Where is Orion set? I have no idea. The action transpires on a landscape as blank as a bare stage. Chapter One, quoted below in its entirety, gives us the setting:
It was all over gravel, but better than the last place. There was all over swampland and crocodiles.
There is gravel, then, apparently in great expanses, and golf carts are the chief mode of transport. Copious amounts of shrimp are consumed, which suggests that we perhaps might be somewhere near the sea or near another large body of water, but on the other hand, our narrator has traveled and there have been shrimp at all stops:I have been in swampland and gravel, sand, ocean, rain forest, and bog. Some places indescribable, having characteristics of neither swampland nor gravel, rain forest nor bog. Nor sand. Nor ocean. And so forth. Some places have been straight clean poured concrete, another entirely encased in liquid.
Orion is a mysterious book. It’s exuberant, often funny, and very strange. Our narrator, Finley, is a member of what can only described as a cell of detectives. I’m tempted to describe them as secret agents—there’s something of the sleeper cell in the group’s organization—but they do after all wear fedoras. There are three of them—Finley, Murphy, and The Lamb—living and working together under the direction of Binelli. There are Investigations. They are given Assignments. Finley’s latest Assignment involves investigating an outfit by the name of Uppal Puppets, although puppets are, as she’s informed Binelli, among her Most Hated things. They travel between landscapes of sand, fog, and gravel, but they always live together in a restaurant/bookstore/surfing memorabilia museum/inn called Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn: “Wherever we went, wherever the concerns in need of Investigation took us, we always stayed at Tiki Ty’s Tiki Barn. And unlikely seeming as it seems, it always seemed to be exactly the same place. One learns that certain questions are unanswerable.”
Finley’s an adult, but her memories begin only a few years before her Assignment to Puppets, when she woke after a great silence with no memory of her previous life. She’s a highly trained Investigator—although the objectives of the team’s Investigations are never remotely clear—and a devotee of California noir. Henehan’s writing style is a delight: the novel is Finley’s report, and it’s written in exactly the kind of voice one might expect from a socially inept young detective who reads a lot of noir and has no memory of most of her life. Finley is self-assured, frequently wrong, and a little off.
Finley retreats into California noir novels whenever things get complicated, which is often, because very little in this book makes sense at first glance. It’s a clever book, and the book’s cleverness is in some ways its downfall: there is a plot here, and there are clues, but the clues are so extremely missable and the finer details of the plot are touched upon so lightly that both have a way of disappearing into the prose. I’ll confess that when I finished the book for the first time—standing in an interminable Canada Customs line in an airport—I was actually mostly baffled.
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t understand a novel, and there was some temptation to blame the disorienting effects of air travel and/or the inevitably Kafkaesque elements of going through Customs. There was, I’ll also confess, some comfort in turning the book over and discovering that at least one of the blurbers was somewhat baffled too—“Hilarious, severe, baffling, and sometimes so far over my head that I can see only a distant glow”—and it quickly became clear that I was going to have to read it again. Which I did, whereupon a few things fell into place and one or two other things didn’t—I may go to my grave without fully understanding what exactly happened to Kiki B. It was a pleasure to return to Henehan’s prose, but a person might reasonably wish for a more clearly-rendered plot.
But I found, in the end, after two readings and numerous spells of confusion, that I loved this book. Orion’s strangeness is mostly wonderful. Henehan is a writer of considerable grace and skill.
I have a moderate Raymond Chandler obsession, which emerged a few years back when I encountered The Simple Art of Murder, his famous essay published in the December 1944 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. His description of the archetypical hero of detective fiction is unforgettable, and I sometimes catch myself repeating the words under my breath at odd moments. “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean,” Chandler wrote, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
What happens when a detective novel is lifted from the mean streets, or when the mean streets are part of an unrecognizable world? It’s not a new trick, but it’s a deeply appealing one. The prose styles are wildly different, but Orion reminds me a little of Jonathan Lethem’s pre-Fortress of Solitude work. Lethem’s breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn, was of course a detective story, and that novel’s Minna Men are only a few degrees removed from Orion’s traveling misfits. Motherless Brooklyn clung ever-so-tenuously to consensual reality—there was a menacing gang of Zen-trained doormen, yes, but they occupied a recognizable Manhattan—but it was preceded by a detective story that didn’t. Before Motherless Brooklyn there was Gun, with Occasional Music, which incidentally is #2 on an informal Titles I Wish I’d Thought Of First list. (#1 is The Long Goodbye. There are others.)
I liked Motherless Brooklyn, but I loved Gun, with Occasional Music. It’s a classic private-detective story, but the detective is a man born far too late. He dresses the part—fedora, trench coat, snarl—but he occupies a surrealist dystopia far from the mean streets walked by Philip Marlowe. No part of the world he moves through is conducive to being the man he wants to be. Most of the population is addicted to complicated bouquets of pharmaceuticals. There have been certain advances in genetic engineering, and now the detective’s mean streets are shared by talking animals. Dogs are employed as deliverymen. A self-conscious pig glances shyly at him from under her bonnet in an elevator. He meets a little kitten who’s learning to read. His arch-nemesis is a kangaroo.
Returning, for a moment, to the recognizable: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, set solidly in the cities of New York and Los Angeles. “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies,” Woody Allen’s character said in that film, and I believe the same could be said of well-established genres.
I think it would be difficult at this point, although probably not impossible, to write a truly fresh detective story that is also entirely traditional. In other words, a detective story set in traditionally noir mean streets in a traditional era, an era when private eyes wore fedoras and trenchcoats without looking nostalgic in them. The innovations of experimenters like Henehan and Lethem are what keep our most beloved genres alive.
Anya Ulinich, author of Petropolis, talks to World Literature Today: “What else can a person do when she gets home after a ten-hour work day – with a toothache that she can’t afford to fix . . . – but fall on the couch and watch whatever is in front of her face?” . . . Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is just out, talks to Sarah Manguso for The Believer: “At the origin of the work there has to be strong feeling, if it’s going to be any good. Of course, that strong feeling can be a delight in language.” . . . The Book Bench unearths a 1978 John Updike interview with a Croation periodical, which finds the Rabbit Angstrom author halfway through his tetralogy. . . . Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics talks to Omnivoracious, and selects his favorite books in the series (via). . . . And James Ellroy submits to interrogation at The Paris Review: “I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist.”
If life is a novel, death is an editor. It strikes through every extraneous detail. It erases periods of divagation, inactivity, and muddle. What’s left is the stuff of obituaries and of eulogies: stories that fit together with a retrospective snap. Applied to public figures who spend their lives “on message,” this tendency to condense may even represent a kind of fulfillment. Writers are an odd subspecies of public figure, however – an expansively private one – and when a writer dies, our journalistic last rites run the risk of cutting his million-word testimony down to a stingy clutch of nouns. Thus David Foster Wallace and John Updike, the two greatest literary losses of the last year, get reduced to “difficulty” and “depression” (in the former case) and to “virtuosity” and “complacency” (in the latter).Another quirk of writers, though: they bequeath us the tools we need to reach our own conclusions, without the mediation of professionals. For those disinclined to snap judgments, the death of a novelist may invite a long – even leisurely – period of reconsideration. Meandering through the back catalogue (it’s all back catalogue now) even longtime readers may stumble on a different writer than the one they thought they knew.This spring, I found myself returning to Updike’s fiction of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was startled by how it diverged from my memory of it. In particular, I was bowled over by the strangeness, the reckless compassion, and the emotional power of Rabbit Redux (1971). Late in life, Updike published a slimmer novel called Terrorist, which met with distinctly mixed reviews. Reviewers found fault with Rabbit Redux, as well, Updike confesses in his introduction to the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus. But, in its ardent engagement with the revolutionary zeitgeist of Nixon-era America, Rabbit Redux now looks to be Updike’s great novel of the age of political terror.The novel, the first sequel to the celebrated Rabbit, Run, opens with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, American Everyman, more or less reconciled with the wife he abandoned in the earlier book. Updike lovingly describes the creature comforts that surround the Angstroms in Penn Villas, a middle-class suburb of decaying Brewer, Pennsylvania: their “flagstone porchlet,” their “door with its three baby windows arranged like three steps, echoing the door-chime of three stepped tones.” Their son Nelson is on the cusp of puberty, astronauts are about to make a moon landing, and all is right with the world, or at least hunky-dory.Rabbit soon discovers, however, that his wife, Janice, is contemplating an abandonment of her own. Now a working woman, she has succumbed to the charms of her coworker, Charlie Stavros. Stavros shows her an emotional and sexual solicitude Harry has never been capable of. The hell of it is, Harry can’t bring himself to hate Janice, or even her lover, an upwardly mobile, politically progressive ethnic food aficionado who seems to hail from some distant, shag-carpeted planet. Updike – the poet laureate of infidelity – can’t bring himself to hate the adulterers either. Indeed, both author and protagonist take Janice’s sexual awakening as an opportunity to interrogate the Eisenhower-era values of which Harry Angstrom is a repository… and to find them, in their inflexibility, wanting.Updike, who openly admired many of those values, has sometimes been characterized by writers to his left as a reactionary. However, a bravura early scene in which Angstrom and Stavros debate the war in Vietnam exposes this as a caricature. We sympathize with Stavros, who “‘can’t get too turned-on about cops bopping hippies on the head and the Pentagon playing cowboys and Indians all over the globe.'” He tells Janice, of Harry, “‘See how little and tight his mouth gets when he talks about politics?'” And we sympathize with Harry, who claims not to think about politics. “‘That’s one of my Goddam precious American rights,” he says, “not to think about politics… And it really burns me up to listen to hotshot crap-car salesmen dripping with Vitalis sitting on their plumped-up asses bitching about a country that’s been stuffing goodies into their mouth ever since they were born.” To which Charlie retorts, “‘I want to follow your reasoning. Tell me about the goodies we’ve been stuffing into Vietnam.'”More than Bellow in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (that other great response to ’60s-era unrest, and surely an influence here) Updike is willing to interrogate his own biases, to exercise negative capability. He seems to conclude that politics are personal on both sides of the ideological divide. Rabbit can’t disentangle the message from the messenger; Stavros can’t see what a lousy messenger he is. Which doesn’t mean they can’t try. Stavros will eventually try to persuade Janice to return to her husband. And Harry will touchingly parrot Stavros’ point-of-view later in the book, in an attempt to enlighten Janice’s father. Indeed, by this point, Rabbit Redux has assumed a form borrowed from the counterculture Updike is supposed to have hated: the consciousness-raising session.The middle section of the book, wherein Janice moves out of the house – is a long, strange, irresponsible trip. Harry begins smoking dope and exploring the down-and-out side of Brewer. He entangles himself with a teenage runaway named Jill and a petty criminal-cum-black-nationalist named Skeeter. Updike’s willingness to hurl himself into the thicket of American race relations is remarkable. “The bus has too many Negroes,” Harry thinks, at one point.Two of the men in the shop are Negroes, Farnsworth and Buchanan, you didn’t even notice; at least they remember how to laugh. Sad business, being a Negro man, always underpaid… But against these educated tolerant thoughts leans a certain fear; [Harry] doesn’t see why they have to be so noisyThis is what the world of many white male characters in novels might look like, stripped of political correctness and bad faith. I can imagine readers who are black, or are women, or both, taking exception to Jill and Skeeter, who hover somewhere between character and symbol. But Harry’s re-education at the hands of these outcasts, his awakening to the sources of his own basic good fortune, precipitates a real change in him. Perhaps it even precipitated a change in suburban readers, circa 1971, as a novel more deferential to pieties or circumspect about stereotypes could not.A prominent critic condemned a later Updike novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, for its “theological complacency.” For all I know, he may have been right. But this verdict is far too narrow to contain the vast corpus Updike left behind. Rabbit Redux shows a writer willing as few other American novelists are (Norman Rush comes to mind) to suspend judgment on his characters’ political, philosophical, moral, and theological failings – to love them anyway. Indeed, it is characteristic of Updike that the “rhetoric of social protest and revolt… antithetical to [his] Fifties education” (as he puts it in the omnibus introduction) aroused not his defenses, but his curiosity.Agitated by the times, his limpid prose in this book approaches the visionary. Near the end, Harry thinks of Jill, now gone, and remembers “her daughterly blind grass-green looking to him for more than shelter.” We are reminded, adverbially, of the daughter Harry lost in Rabbit, Run. Yet even in his redoubled grief – that extraordinary, comma-less catharsis – there is some hopeful green stuff woven. Rilke wrote that beauty was merely the beginning of the arc of terror. Rabbit Redux suggests a corollary: that terror may sometimes be the beginning of the arc of beauty.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.
As many have likely already heard, John Updike died today. The New York Times and innumerable other outlets are remembering his gargantuan contribution to American letters. We’ve talked about Updike many times here at the Millions; for starters, there was Corey Vilhauer on the Rabbit Angstrom novels, James Hynes on Rabbit at Rest, and Hamilton Leithauser on Roger’s Version. With his close association with The New Yorker, his stories were naturally covered in the two roundups of the magazine’s fiction that we’ve done: 2005 and 2008. Patrick also paid homage to Updike’s story “The Christian Roommates” last year.Speaking of Patrick, he has collected some nice links at the Vroman’s blog, including Updike’s appearance on the Bat Segundo Show podcast, Sam Anderson’s remembrance at Vulture, and, oddly, Updike on dinosaurs for National Geographic.Updike fans can also wend their way through the New Yorker archives, checking out his work. That link comes via emdashes, which also offers ample Updike coverage. There’s also this conversation (there’s a video and transcript available) between Updike and Jeffrey Goldberg at the NYPL, suggested by our contributor Anne. And George Saunders recalls his own first story for the New Yorker being paired with an Updike story.Finally, Wikipedia has plenty of detail on Updike’s life and Amazon, on his substantial oeuvre.
Which is better?Reading a series slowly, savoring each book by separating it from its ilk, dividing and conquering and drawing the series out over the span of several years, as if reading them real time the way they were released.Or…Devouring a series at once, going from book to book as if the separate entities were truly one bound volume, not allowing the characters to rest but letting them progress, from their early days until their final words.I used to be in the former.Now I’m in the latter.This sudden change of heart is thanks, in most part, to this month’s Book of the Month – John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels. Or, as most know it: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest.Breaking away from my typical pattern, where I found myself reading one book, then steering away for a while until coming back to the next in the series (see: Roddy Doyle’s Henry books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), I decided to read all of these books at once. I came to this decision in two parts.First, I had to actually decide to read one of the Rabbit books. I did it in order to see what the big deal was about. So I asked around. I had heard from several people that Rabbit Redux was the best of the four. I found out that the final two books won the Pulitzer. That left three of the four books with a decent pedigree. Then, I thought, “Well, if I was going to read the last three, shouldn’t I start with the first one?” In days, I had created a viable argument for reading each one of the four books.Second, at Common Good Books in St. Paul (Garrison Keillor’s great little basement bookstore), I made a grand discovery. Having never looked for any of these Updike books before, I never realized they had been published together. They had been. It was reportedly the way Updike had meant to have them published after finishing the fourth installment: as Rabbit Angstrom. The collection shed its four names and took the name of its protagonist, the utterly despicable yet strangely endearing man from Brewer, Pennsylvania.With that, I found my mind made up for me. I’d just read all of them.So I did. And here’s what I found.1. Reading a set of books like this keeps everything fresh. Nothing is missed. Vague remembrances to scenes in past books are still top-of-mind, making every allusion memorable. You also start to see patterns more readily. There’s no time taken trying to figure out where a character or an odd turn of phrase, or a symbol or reference to earlier foreshadowing first appeared. You know. You encountered it just a few days prior.2. In completing the set, I discovered I intimately knew everything about the character – more than any character I’ve ever encountered. And I have to believe that, if read apart, I wouldn’t have made all of the connections. I wouldn’t have been able to predict what Rabbit was going to do. It would have been impossible – I’d have spent part of my brain thinking back to whether an event was worth remembering, not processing each flaw, each trait.3. I saw each character grow, amazingly, over a thirty year period, in a way that only a 1,500 page novel can do.The Rabbit books are pretty simple, actually – just the chronicle of one man’s life over thirty years, each book taking place ten years after the one before it. It’s, to use the overused Rabbit cliche, a series about an “Everyman.” It’s the tale of Everyman’s rise from dirt to riches, complete with all of the warts – the infidelities, the misguided choices, death, life, hate, family relations, everything that makes real life interesting.I know. I know. Many actually find the Rabbit novels to be very uninteresting. Many find Updike to be a little too pretentious, especially in these books. Many find these to be boring, unnecessary trifles that have done no more than elevate Updike to a literary position he may not deserve.I liked them. I liked them because, over the course of the four books, I truly got to know Harry Angstrom. I knew what he was going to do, felt his every pain and struggle. When he was in the hospital, I developed a sympathy chest pain. When he was watching his home burn down, I was smelling fire in the distance. When he hurt, or was hurt, I wanted it to stop – I wanted to do something to steer the characters in the right direction, to grab them by the shoulders and remind them of what had happened in the past – where the destructive nature was going to lead, why they were making mistakes that they should have learned from in years past.I enjoyed the decade-wide time capsules and the growth of the characters and the references to past seemingly inconsequential events. And Updike, despite all that he did to make Rabbit Angstrom completely sex-crazed at times, is a great writer. You’ve got to hand him that.So yeah, I tended to grasp the characters emotionally. In everyday life, I’d find things that reminded me of Harry Angstrom, simply because he seemed so real – so ordinary and so knowable.I’m not sure I’d have had the same effect if I read them spread out over a long time. I’m not sure I’d have even finished the collection. But I’m sure glad I did.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.