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John Updike, RIP

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John Updike is dead at age 76.

He published more than 50 books in a career that started in the 1950s. Updike has won several major literary prizes, including two Pulitzers, for "Rabbit Is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest," and two National Book Awards.

Mr Updike attended Harvard and, after graduation, decided to pursue a career in graphic arts before attending The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.

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This is a great shock. He was my favorite writer and we were the same age. Long ago, he and I used to get published in "The Phoenix Nest" in Saturday Review. He went on to bigger and better things. Now he is in an even bigger, better place. He was a deeply religious man. May he rest in peace -- although I wish he could send back a report.

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A longer obituary here.

“My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

From his earliest short stories, set in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he once described as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid,” Mr. Updike sought the clash of extremes in everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce.

Getting older, in his own words.

My word processor—a term that describes me as well—is the last of a series of instruments of self-expression that began with crayons and colored pencils held in my childish fist. My hands, somewhat grown, migrated to the keyboard of my mother’s typewriter, a portable Remington, and then, schooled in touch- typing, to my own machine, a beige Smith-Corona expressly bought by loving parents for me to take to college. I graduated to an office model, on the premises of The New Yorker magazine, that rose up, with an exciting heave, from the surface of a metal desk. Back in New England as a freelancer, I invested in an electric typewriter that snatched the letters from my fingertips with a sharp, premature clack; it held, as well as a black ribbon, a white one with which I could correct my many errors. Before long, this clever mechanism gave way to an even more highly evolved device, an early Wang word processor that did the typing itself, with a marvelous speed and infallibility. My next machine, an IBM, made the Wang seem slow and clunky and has been in turn superseded by a Dell that deals in dozens of type fonts and has a built-in spell checker. Through all this relentlessly advancing technology the same brain gropes through its diminishing neurons for images and narratives that will lift lumps out of the earth and put them under the glass case of published print.
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Sad news, indeed. I grew up near Reading, Pennsylvania, and my Latin teacher, a formidable woman who taught nearly everything at one time or another, had taught "Johnny Updike" English, which she told us constantly. I always felt he was a kind of cousin and would read his books when I was in high school simply because I liked trying to figure out the places :thumbsup:

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I recall my first encounter with Updike--a long except of "Rabbit Redux" in "The Atlantic Monthly" in 1971. I was at the library, then the bookstore the next morning to get a stack of his novels. His worlds of suburban angst, sex and death seemed to commonplace on the surface but so wretchedly off-kilter once you got past the exquisite facade his prose created.

He kept working right up to the end--"The Widows of Eastwick" hasn't been out that long and her remained a regular in "The New Yorker".

Updike dead now and Plimpton and Halberstram dying not so terribly long ago. Not much connects them (at least that I can think of just now) other than they were easterners with great educations and who wrote beautifully although very different styles, genre and subect matters.


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This week's New Yorker has a remembrance of Updike by Adam Gopnik (one of my favorite New Yorker writers). This insight in particular rings true:

Despite the lyrical surface of his prose, Updike was a realist, as comedians must be, and never even marginally a romantic. He was genuinely unseduced by all the myths of American romanticism: gorgeous Daisys and vast sinister Western landscapes are equally absent from his books. His girls and women are real, with scratchy pubic hair, and his American landscape of car dealerships and fast-food retreats held no place for doomed, exciting, existential gunmen. He was, for all those perfect shining sentences, a realist; the sentences sing, but they don’t ennoble.

This issue also has an appreciative piece from Roger Angell.

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As a regular reader to New Yorker, it's from his reviews and commentary writing there that I have the biggest sense of Updike. I read the Rabbit books as a teen, as well as Eastwick, but admit that I started to lose interest in his fiction. Yet, his New Yorker writings were wonderful until his last few months. The New Yorker article is a fitting remembrance to a man who will be missed.

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