NONFICTION: A biography of prolific writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.
Investing in sturdy bookshelves was a wise decision. I sleep easily knowing the weight of my John Updike books won’t collapse the shelves in the middle of the night.
The more than 20 novels and the collections of the hundreds of short stories aren’t worrisome; it’s the fat volumes of his memoirs, reviews and essays that make the shelves groan. Updike published his writing like bakers produce delicious cupcakes — a steady stream of polished, smart prose, perhaps more words than any other American writer of his time.
Adam Begley, the first in what will be a queue of Updike biographers, argues that his subject’s inspiration and motivation were the moments in what Updike himself called his “ordinary life.” The only child of a middle-class couple in the central Pennsylvania city of Reading, he treasured his placid childhood and cozy teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s.
Shillington, Updike’s first neighborhood, “was a magical realm oozing nurture and encouragement,” writes Begley, a place of “stability and security.” Updike’s mother, however, wanted to insulate her only child from the temptations and bad company of Reading, and she moved her family to her cramped family home in the farm village of Plowville.
To Begley, the move from that idyllic haven when Updike was 13 left a sense of loss that the writer still felt 55 years later when he wrote that he “saw his entire life … as an errant encircling of this forgotten center.”
That seemingly mild trauma is the lens through which the biographer frames his account of Updike’s life. Despite success at Harvard and his dream job as a New Yorker magazine writer in the 1950s, Updike chose to live in Ipswich, a small Massachusetts town — or, as Begley called it, “paradise regained.”
Updike; his first wife, Mary, and their two children left New York City in 1957 for the suburbs, a stable, predictable environment where Updike blossomed as a fiction writer. He wrote his first eight novels there, including “Rabbit, Run,” “The Centaur” and “Couples,” as well as dozens of his best short stories for the New Yorker, and began a second career as a prolific — and often profound — literary and art critic.
Begley has done the gumshoe work of a thorough biographer from close readings of his subject’s works to interviews with family, friends and neighbors, particularly sessions with Mary and their children. The biography is full of those small but telling details that define Updike’s life.
Updike regularly played poker and golfed with his buddies and had a tendency to lust after their wives, all of which found their way into his fiction. As he grew older and in response to critics, Updike tried to widen his field in such novels as “Brazil,” but the novels built from his memories, particularly the “Rabbit” series, are the ones that will endure.
Begley’s biography has set the standard for detailing the nature of Updike’s private and public life and will send readers such as myself back to the author’s early works with renewed appreciation.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.