The last John Updike novel I read was 2006’s Terrorist. Creaky at times in its plotting, there was also something admirable and fresh in his striving to step inside and bring to life the consciousness of an eighteen-year-old American Muslim drawn toward committing a terrorist act. Less interesting were the novel’s other characters, particularly the high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, who seemed too much a retread of those aging middle-class malcontents that Updike perfected long ago and about whom he apparently had nothing new to say. In other words, while I enjoyed the sheen of his trademark polished prose, it wasn’t a novel I recommended to friends or cared to review.
What I’ve read of his over the years, I most admired The Centaur (1963). It’s one of the richest literary evocations of adolescence. A standout scene has the youthful autobiographical protagonist hesitantly pulling off his shirt and revealing to a girlfriend the stigma of psoriasis on his arms and chest. Updike’s essay “At War with My Skin,” from his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness, describes in unflinching, painful detail his lifelong struggle with psoriasis. While he sometimes seemed like a writer who hid behind his voluptuous style, at his best and sharpest he could harness his preternatural fluency in the service of hard emotional truth.
Not long ago I pencil-marked a soaring passage in an otherwise pedestrian short story, “Lunch Hour,” from Updike’s collection Licks of Love (2000). It’s about a high school reunion of oldsters. The prose comes alive in describing an autumn joyride in a Studebaker coupe through the Pennsylvania countryside circa 1948:
Little cemeteries of tilted sandstones, mysterious thick groves of planted evergreens, rickety farm stands that would have appeared deserted but for their fresh yellow squashes and orange pumpkins and the bonneted old woman keeping an eye on things from the porch; collapsing stone springhouses, the overgrown ruins of old iron forges, creeks making brown foam with their chuckling small waterfalls; fields of corn, of rye, of tobacco, of cattle, of peach and apple trees in blossom or bent low with fruit—all of this poured around the noontime travelers, who were oblivious to most everything but one another and the sensation of speed.