Like most men my age—I am a decade younger than John Updike—I began reading him because of the sex. I was still in prep school when I first read Rabbit, Run, in college when I read The Centaur. I had finished with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had my first teaching job when I read Couples, which was published around the time I published my first novel, Setting Free the Bears. People were always critical of what Updike wrote about; I always defended him because he wrote so well. He was one of those writers who taught me: You’re a writer because you can write well, not because of your “subject.”
Like Margaret Atwood, Updike was unafraid—he didn’t write the same novel over and over again. OK, there were the Rabbit novels, and the Bech stories; and after the marvelous witches (of Eastwick), they came back, most recently, as widows. What made the sex different was that it was elegant, refined—yet no less inappropriate, or nasty, when Updike wanted it to be. Kurt Vonnegut said there are writers who, if it hadn’t worked out for them to be writers, would be in jail. There were writers who simply couldn’t have made a living for themselves if the writing hadn’t worked out; that meant Vonnegut, and that meant me. But Updike always gave me the impression that he could have/would have been successful at anything. He was smart; not all writers are intellectuals. I’m not. He was, but he was good-humored about it; he never flaunted it.
He was also a quick study. His novel Terrorist was criticized by the sudden abundance of terror experts; Updike didn’t get this right, or he didn’t correctly understand this element, or—whatever. I thought the novel was an amazingly quick study, and an insightful one. I cared about the characters—something many intellectuals who write fiction don’t get at all.
We weren’t friends. We knew each other socially for the brief period of time when I lived in Massachusetts—in Cambridge—and he was in Beverly Farms. We had dinner together a few times. We had a polite but not frequent correspondence, too. For a period of time—no longer—fans used to confuse the two of us. How could this have happened? Because we were both “John”? It was baffling, but I got numerous fan letters that were meant for him, and he got fan letters that were meant for me, and this gave us the occasion to write to each other—and send the misdirected fan mail to each other. This has stopped; it hasn’t happened in five or six years. Maybe this was mail from a single demented village or the same deranged family; maybe it was generational, and they’ve died out—those idiots who thought I was John Updike and John Updike was me.
Slate V: Watch John Updike on the dilemma of both writing and reviewing books
The letters would begin “Dear John Irving,” and I would read for a while before I realized that the letter-writer was talking about an Updike novel; it was the same for him. I admit that I miss this craziness; it will probably never happen again.
Look at all he did! The novels, the short stories, the poems, the essays, and criticism; he was productive, and envied. I read him because I always knew I would be entertained. His writing was lively; there was a constant energy in the language, and a mirth—a great good humor.
Once, when he came to dinner, my middle son, Brendan, was in a phase of dressing up—disguises, voices with accents, bizarre enactments. Updike and I were having dinner when Brendan appeared in a kimono; he was holding a lit candle, and something that looked like (or was) a microphone. “Good evening,” Brendan said. “This is the news in Japanese.” And then he went into an incomprehensible imitation of Japanese news; it was pretty convincing. (I think Brendan must have been 8 or 10 at the time.)
That was all. Brendan left, with a bow, and we went back to our dinner. Updike had never met Brendan before.
When we were saying good night, Updike asked: “The news, in Japanese—is it a regular event?”
“No, just for us,” I said; I couldn’t think of what else to say. Brendan had never done it before, nor would he ever do it again.
“Well, that was … special,” Updike said.
I shall miss him, and his fan mail.