Updike was a young man, just twenty-two, when he wrote “Ex-Basketball Player,” but he has returned to the figure of a high-school basketball star and his anticlimactic adulthood throughout his career. Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit At Rest (1990), considered by many to be the author’s masterpieces and arguably milestones in twentieth century American fiction, trace the life of their hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, through his late twenties until his death in his mid-fifties. Flick Webb is surely a prototype for Updike’s much more famous literary creation.
Like Rabbit, Flick was a high-school basketball record holder whose early successes and, within a provincial context, fame, have dire consequences. Readers might ask themselves who is to blame for what appears to be Flick’s certain future demise. Is the problem that Flick allowed adoration to get to his head and never bothered to prepare a better future for himself, or is the problem that Flick lives in a society that confers such status on exceptionally talented high-school athletes that their future failings are almost preordained? The casual reader who reads the poem as a simple indictment of Flick or simply as a portrait of a pathetic former high-school basketball star rapidly approaching a disappointing middle age might consider a few of the poem’s details.
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Christopher Carduff, who was handpicked by John Updike to edit the Library of America edition of his work, also edits the posthumous Updike publications for Knopf, the latest of which, John Updike: Selected Poems, will be published this month. We asked Mr. Carduff to choose ten of his favorite books by Updike in a variety of genres.
1. Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy - Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest: this series epitomizes for many readers their experience of Updike—indeed their experience of the postwar American novel. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex–high school basketball player on uneasy terms with the responsibilities of adulthood, is a creature in constant motion: he perceives, he reacts, he leaps out of harm’s way— and then, immediately facing some new hazard (usually of his own making), he is forced to leap again. He lives, with a kind of animal grace, in an eternal present tense; his senses are sharper than ours, his life force stronger, even though his thoughts are more confused and more troubled by ineffable longing. None of Updike’s contemporaries created a more representative American protagonist, and none, not even Nabokov, could match Updike when it came to pinning down those grand and gaudy butterflies that were the American Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Read these books in the definitive Everyman omnibus edition of 1995, which features a fascinating introduction by the author.
2. Olinger Stories: A Selection - If the Rabbit series gives us Updike at his “hottest,” at his most ambitious and improvisatory, his New Yorker short stories present us with an artist of opposite temperament. Here is the work of an exquisite miniaturist, a cool, controlled Vermeer who paints domestic scenes on small canvases in tiny, deliberate, gorgeously colored brushstrokes. This book, a selection by the author from his early autobiographical stories, mythologizes, in 11 episodes, his boyhood in small-town Pennsylvania during the 1940s. It includes at least two works, “Pigeon Feathers” and “The Happiest I’ve Been,” that, had Updike written nothing else, would guarantee his immortality as a master of the American short story.
3. Of the Farm - This pastoral for four voices—an aging farm widow, her visiting fortyish son, his new (second) wife, and his 11-year-old stepchild—ranks with So Long, See You Tomorrow and The Ghost Writer among the very few near-perfect postwar American novellas. The mute sandstone farmhouse that witnesses the unfolding of an emotionally fraught family weekend is one of Updike’s many settings with all the presence of a human character.
4. The Maples Stories - In his scenes from the marriage of Joan and Richard Maple (“Snowing in Greenwich Village,” “Separating”), Updike created, more memorably and more tenderly than he did in Couples, enduring emblems of American adultery, divorce, and their aftermath. “That a marriage ends is less than ideal,” Updike writes in a preface, “but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds. The moral of these stories is that all blessings are mixed.”
5. The Witches of Eastwick - Updike’s comic triumph of 1984, which features not one but three of his best drawn female characters, was the original “paranormal romance.” It is the tale of Darryl Van Horne, a vulgar, hairy, petty demon newly arrived in a gossip-ridden Rhode Island port town, who, by harnessing the powers of a coven of comely and comradely witches, works some very real evil on certain “deserving” members of the local populace. Read Witches in tandem with its sequel, the underrated Widows of Eastwick (2009): the two novels, like the three witches, gain magic from their proximity to one another.
6. In the Beauty of the Lilies - This multi-generational saga, published in 1996, is my favorite of Updike’s later novels. Michiko Kakutani thought this story—a working-out-through-the-flesh of the American fever dreams of Protestant fundamentalism, Hollywood fantasy, and utopian social idealism—even more historically and sociologically ambitious than the Rabbit cycle. “In charting the fortunes of an American family through some 80 years,” she wrote, “[Updike] showed how dreams, habits, and predilections are handed down generation to generation, parent to child, even as he created a kaleidoscopic portrait of this country from its nervous entry into the 20th century to its stumbling approach to the millennium."
7. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams - On September 28, 1960, Red Sox slugger Ted Williams swung his bat one last time in Boston’s Fenway Park. He hit a home run—a storybook ending to a storied career—and Updike was there to capture it, in what no less an authority than Roger Angell has called “the best baseball essay ever.” In 2010, on the 50th anniversary of Ted’s legendary homer, The Library of America reprinted Updike’s single foray into sports reporting, together with a memorial tribute, “Ted Williams, 1918–2002.” Updike’s fannish identification with Williams, an artist who put his heart into his work every time he approached the plate, is palpable in every line.
8. Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism - If Updike donned the sportswriter’s eyeshade as a one-time-only lark, he assumed the tweed jacket of the literary journalist as a kind of daily public uniform. After 1960 he dominated the Books pages of The New Yorker, publishing more than 400 reviews and essays there over the next five decades. Of his six oversized collections of criticism, Hugging the Shore, which won a 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, seems to me the richest and strongest. Here are magisterial lectures on Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman; enduringly readable reviews of Nabokov, Bellow, and Cheever; and consummate examples of all the sorts of occasional writing Updike put his hand to, from humorous sketches and literary translations to definitive tributes to poets, theologians, astronomers, and movie stars.
9. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs - John Hoyer Updike’s unconventional memoirs consists of six Emersonian essays on deeply personal subjects: his coming to consciousness in small-town Pennsylvania; his Updike and Hoyer ancestors; his psoriasis; his stuttering; his conservative politics; his Protestant faith and his sense of being a “self” forever. This is not an autobiography, it is a meditation on John Updike’s life as “a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly uniquely lives in the world.” This is not confessional gossip, it is a study in being alive.
10. Endpoint and Other Poems - Updike’s first book, published in 1958, was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. His last book, too, was a volume of verse, Endpoint and Other Poems (2009). In these books and in the six collections of poetry that came between, Updike was frequently a “real” poet, not merely “also” a poet. Certain of his poems—“Seven Stanzas at Easter,” “Dog’s Death,” “A Rescue,” “Rats”—seem destined for a long life in standard poetry anthologies. But true lovers of poetry will, I think, come to treasure most the title poem of Endpoint, a chronicle, in supple and intimate blank-verse sonnets, of Updike’s final years that suddenly, with the last few devastating entries in the sequence, telescopes into an intimate journal of his final days.