Originally published in The Boston Globe, March 16, 2009
The eternal life of Rabbit Angstrom assures his author's too, but this is no substitute for knowing that, in a sequence of rooms at the top of a North Shore house with a wide view of the horizon line, John Updike is at work on something new.
True, a book of stories is scheduled for June, and from a volume of poems to be published next month a selection appears in the most recent New Yorker. But the final page proofs he signed off on, after 55 years in the magazine, are in last week's issue. There is welcome consolation in the unanimous tributes, and Thursday his publishers are hosting in his honor a literary gathering at the New York Public Library. A day sooner, all of his fans can celebrate, by reading him, on the anniversary of his birth.
In the days after his death in late January, as a deliberate means of keeping his voice alive and well on the page, I re-read his first two books in their slim antique 50-cent Fawcett Crest paperback editions. The 16 stories in The Same Door had all been published in The New Yorker during Updike's first five years out of college, but the collection was even preceded in 1958 by the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. "Put his name down as someone whose books you will want to read, this year and in the future," proclaimed The Houston Post. The New York Herald Tribune said about the novel, "It is startling as well as gratifying that one so young should prove, within a few pages, to write so well and be so wise."
His second story in that first collection, called "Ace in the Hole," already introduces a protagonist who isn't living up to the glory days of his all-time success as a high school basketball star. Fred "Ace" Anderson seems a prototype for Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, whose only claim (until becoming a literary all-star with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960) was local fame for twice setting the B-league's scoring record. With Updike's own career getting off to such a slam-dunk start, perhaps Rabbit became the lucky charm Updike was carrying in his pocket to protect himself against the curse of peaking too soon.
As if taking nothing for granted, a new novel in the Rabbit series would appear at the beginning of every decade, and even after Harry collapses in Florida during a pick-up game and dies at age 56 in Rabbit at Rest, the sequel Rabbit Remembered made a surprise arrival with the new millennium. "He didn't really have a calling, after high school," was the bleak summary definition that Rabbit's creator seemed determined to defy, and did.
In Updike's series of writing rooms he had desks dedicated to fiction or poetry or criticism or essays, so while Rabbit is now relinquished, readers will continue to celebrate this prodigious diligence and its sparkling output. In last month's anniversary issue of The New Yorker is a selection from the more than 800 Updike contributions to the magazine, a collection of "Picked-Up Pieces" by which to remember him. Or look back to an issue from last October, where the author searches, in a "Life and Letters" piece called "A Desert Encounter," for a prized hat feared lost. "At this latitude, the elderly need to shelter their heads," Updike knows, so when "an older man" happens by to both complicate and simplify the search, a perplexed but authentic kindness—no eastern irony, which "doesn't carry across the Mississippi"—emerges between them.
This instance of the hierarchy of aging, with all its befuddled humor, recalls the other pair of old guys from Updike's first novel published exactly half a century earlier. In my own first reading of The Poorhouse Fair I was too inexperienced to appreciate the critical distinction he makes on the second page, but now I see both its wisdom and the sad truth of its application to the loss of this writer. "Also, there was something in the relationship of Hook's teaching the younger man how to be old; Hook at 94 had been old a third of his life, whereas Gregg, just 70, had barely begun."