This is, of course, the name of one of his stories. In it, a man who has escaped his farm town past, a rustic with urban vanities, nonetheless returns there to visit a trusted dentist. He sees the things that have changed since his childhood visits, the most telling being a digit-based (though not digital) clock, its minutes dropping away, as he watches, “into the brimming void.
What has not changed is his passion for a childhood flame who happens to drop
by the office, chat him up a bit, blush under his revived attentions, and eventually,
almost silently, alludes to the anomies her marriage there has doomed her to. Though
his themes are as abundant as Adam’s names, persistence is Updike’s perpetual
character-driver, the life force that animates each form of his characters’ transcendence:
[Janet] arose and came against his chest, and Clyde,
included in the close aroma her hair and skin gave off,
felt weak and broad and grand, like a declining rose.
Janet tucked a folded note into the pocket of his shirt and
said conversationally, “He’s waiting outside in the car.”
The neutral, ominous “he” opened wide a conspi-
racy Clyde instantly entered. He stayed behind a minute,
to give her time to get away. Ringed by judging eyes of the
young and old, he felt like an actor snug behind the blinding
protection of the footlights; he squinted prolongedly at the
speedometer-clock, which, like a letter delivered on the stage,
And who wrote better about abiding religiosity, the search for faith that Updike saw as essential and unexplainable by reference to historical or social forces? In the story “The Man Who Loved Extinct Animals,” the protagonist sees in the joints and hinges of the fossils he assembles the delicate bridges that the mind builds over the abyss. The brimming void may blind us, he seems to say, but as long as we rivet the beams together, keep busy with the reality or the illusion of building and don’t look down, we will be fine for the time being.
Persistence also abides, though less than in other writers, in those characters who shore up some art, or artifact, against their ruin. One of the most powerful of “The Olinger Stories” (Collected in 2004’s Collected Early Stories), is “The Alligators.” An elementary school boy fashions his first illustrations not out of any transcendent wish, but to satirize a classmate whose ostracism is a requirement for popularity. He feels guilt at creating for such a mean and limited purpose, but then, as he shares other, maturing drawings with friends, sees that he has inherited a transfiguring power, and one conferring the consolations of infinity.
What often persists the most could be the most unattractive but necessary of qualities—market ambition, social climbing, the Sinclair Lewis hucksterism that tells us the historical echoes of the “Rabbit” nickname. In the story “The City,” a man falls ill while traveling on business, and as he recovers through hallucinations and incisional pain, we think that maybe he will reassess, prioritize, hunger for the stasis of a family and fixed life. But the desire to impress and dazzle is as basic to the organism as eating or breathing, and the brush with death seems to have taught him nothing but the need for reserves of energy stored up by rest. It was always Updike’s exploration of ambition that made him that most American of writers. Roth and Bellow approached it brilliantly through urbanized machers of immigrant merchant classes, but Updike filtered it through our Rotary Club speakers, the Toyota salesman (Rabbit Is Rich) quoting gas mileage stats to us from Consumer Reports.
Perhaps the greatest persistence he portrayed was longing itself; yearning, the desire to rise higher and keep hope borne up in one’s bearing as the very badge of existence. Like Francis Bacon, Updike believed the world is laid out for us, kindly disposed to our discovery and enjoyment: “Full of Joye and Wondrous Goode.” That transporting, almost erotic elixir of exploration runs through the age-sequenced life snapshots of the narrator of “Museums and Women.” It first visits him like a spell as he traverses a county reliquary with his mother:
Who she was was a mystery so deep it never formed itself
into a question. She had descended to me from thin clouds of
preexistent time, enveloped me, and set me moving toward an
unseen goal with a vague expectation that in the beginning was
more hers than mine. She was not content. I felt that the motion
that brought us again and again to the museum was an agitated
one, that she was pointing me through these corridors toward a
radiant place that she had despaired of reaching . . .I was her
son and the center of her expectations. I dutifully absorbed the
light-struck terror of the hushed high ceilings and went through
each doorway with a kind of timid rapacity.
What is sought here—though great—is not as important as the sensation, the very texture of seeking: she was pointing me. . . toward a radiant place she had despaired of reaching. Updike owns the luxuriance of The Search more than anyone (perhaps excepting Walker Percy) in modern letters: he invented the theme out of whole cloth and then perfected it in more than fifty books, through hundreds of characters. His perspective on it was tactile, limber, instinctual, breezy, and at the same time solemn, like one of his epistolary clergymen. William Pritchard said of him, reviewing the collection with the above story as its title: “He is a religious writer, he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which, in substantial intelligent creation, will eventually be seen as second to none in our time.” Eventually seen? For those in the know, the fathomless depth, and the dexterity, was staggeringly obvious from the start. Chip McGrath, in his tribute in The Times, posed the question: “If you could write that well by taking a pill, who wouldn’t swallow whole fistfuls of them?”
Though we had no way of knowing it, my colleague Victoria Pynchon and I saw him in his very last public appearance, at UCLA’s Royce Hall in December. He read a quick passage from The Widows of Eastwick, where Alexandra, the aging Rhode Island witch of the Seventies, is now an old woman on a Nile cruise, telepathically electrocuting bats that are flying across her steamer bow and mussing her hair. Everything you could want in establishing a scene is there: the colors of the foul but suddenly clearing river, the Monet hues of the Egyptian twilight, the precisely rendered sound of something we’ll never hear but know could sound only that way were we to witness it—a bat’s fur and rubbery extremities flaming up and then dousing themselves to death in the water.Wrapped up in this sensuous music—much as with his beloved Proust and Bellow—is the effortless, sudden ranging between third person and first, the immediately recognizable hinges of his free indirect style. It is what hit American readers of Rabbit, Run like a thunderbolt in 1959, or like the welcome sun Harry sees on the first page, sliding open the door of his dark, Satanic Linotype shop and blinking at the kindly-disposed world, the bright, haphazard gravel under the soles of his basketball hi-tops. It was the same shifts in register and perspective that made you always know but never care which thought was Rabbit’s or which was his creator’s. He dove like a . . . what?
Like a bat—down into everyone’s head and hovered there meticulously. He got out of them just what was needed for reality to create their observations and then, with a pirouette Sam Tannenhaus called “pure magic,” let his characters’ minds in turn press out upon the world their seeing had reconstituted.
He honed this to perfection in the opening scenes of Rabbit At Rest, where the narrator jumps inside Rabbit (he’s waiting for his wife to get out of the bathroom at the Ft. Myers airport) long enough for us to feel the man’s gluttonous elation, then leaps back to look at his character like a Babbitesque, portly clodhopper, chewing and dribbling a candy bar, gazing at his own strange sunstruck extinction:
While she’s in the ladies he cannot resist going into the shop and buying
something to nibble, a Planter’s Original Peanut Bar, the wrapper says. It was
broken in two somewhere in transit and thinks one half to offer his two
grandchildren when they’re all in the car heading home. It would make a small hit.
But the first half is so good he eats the second and even dumps the sweet
crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with his tongue eats them all up like
an anteater . . . . . As he tries with his tongue to clean the sticky brittle stuff, the
caramelized sugar and corn syrup, from between his teeth—all his still, thank God,
and the front ones not even crowned—Rabbit stares out at the big square of
sunny afternoon. As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its
claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold a diamond solitaire.
We come finally to the little shadow under the intensity of appetite: its forbiddeness and its premonition of oblivion. You stuff yourself, but with something of your own negation.
Later, even closer to death, Rabbit looks up from his heart bypass operating table and sees on a video screen his own horrific viscera, “the pulsing wet tubes we inherited from the squid.” Harry is reassured that his doctor is Jewish, having a
Gentile prejudice that Jews do everything a little better
than other people, something about all those generations
crouched over the Talmud and watch-repair tables, they
aren’t as distracted as other persuasions, they don’t expect
to have as much fun. They stay off the booze and dope and
have a weakness only . . .for broads.
We get Harry’s immediate assessment of his surgeon’s vices, but only after we’ve sailed around the room a little, flitting omnisciently within the purely authorial, purely sociological adumbration of the character.
At the reading, Updike finally laid down the copper-jacketed book and talked awhile with a writer from the L.A. Times Book Review. All his observations were witty, generous, self-deprecating, and in the words of his own epitaph for his beloved editor William Maxwell, “funny and wise and kind and true.” He finished with a gush of enthusiasm about the newly-elected Obama, clasping his hands together, appearing to rise up out of his chair like one of his early cartoon whiffenpoofs. Then he took a series of mostly inept audience questions, steering each gracefully toward a cognizable answer. The inevitable what-are-you-working-on eventually arrived, and for once he really didn’t have a thought-through response. He shrugged his shoulders, slapped his palms on his knees, and said “I’ll only say I intend to stay in this writing business until I drop over dead.” And lucky for us, by God, he did.
Richard Wirick lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and three children, where he practices law and writes. He is the co-founder of the journal Transformation and the author of the hauntingly lyrical collection of prose poems 100 Siberian Post Cards.