Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eye on Updike

I've avoided reading Updike for years. My only impression of him was "A&P" in high school. But I kept coming across him in my reading as one of the great male American novelists, a Christian writer, a master with language, and, after asking advice, took the plunge. Rabbit, Run. Delightful! Couples - amazing.

As a reader and writer, I love stylists. I love prose. And Updike has that in spades. That's one third of the reason we read Updike, from what I can tell, the other two-thirds being his subject matter and the depths of wisdom, the literary artistry, his work contains. But that prose. Sometimes I can identify in the writers whose work I fall in love with at least one paragraph or turn of phrase that I can point to and say, "That's it, that's where he got me, right there." I think this might be the Updike, from Couples:

The couple Foxy's parents had been had vanished. The narrow shuttered frame house on Rosedale Street. The unused front porch. The tan shades always drawn against the heat. The electric fan in the kitchen swinging its slow head back and forth like an imbecile scolding in monotone. The staticky Philco conveying Lowell Thomas. The V-mail spurting through the thrilled slot. The once-a-week Negro woman, called Gracelyn, whose apron pockets smelled of orange peels and Tootsie Rolls. Veronica their jittery spayed terrier who was succeeded by Merle, a slavering black tongued Chow. The parched flowerless shrubbery where Elizabeth would grub for bottlecaps and "clues," the long newspaper-colored ice-cream evenings, the red-checked oilcloth on the kitchen table worn bare at two settings, the way her mother would sit nights at this table, after the news, before putting her daughter to bed, smoking a Chesterfield and smoothing with a jerky, automatic motion the skin beneath her staring eyes: these images vanished everywhere but in Foxy's heart. She went to church to salvage something. Episcopalianism - its rolling baritone hymns to the sea, its pews sparkling with the officers' shoulder-braid - had belonged to the gallant club of Daddy's friends, headed by caped Mr. Roosevelt, that fought and won the war.

I like to joke with my wife and the librarians - anyone that will listen, really - that I read "dirty books," and Couples is as dirty a book as any I have ever read, but with great purpose; probably the best thing written about it is this 1968 review by Wilfrid Sheed. And now I have to find and read Wilfrid Sheed. That's how it works.

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