Book details a writerly life, beneath the surface

By Dwight Garner / New York Times News Service

Published Apr 13, 2014 at 12:01AM

“Updike” by Adam Begley (Harper, 558 pgs., $29.99)

His high school friends called him Uppie, as if he were a drug. He’d claim the back booth in Stephen’s Luncheonette, in Shillington, Pa., his hometown, and amuse everyone by blowing smoke rings and French inhaling. He was gawky and shy but almost sexy.

John Updike (1932-2009) grew up to like high spirits, gags, party games. At The Harvard Lampoon, where he became editor, he organized elaborate pranks that required great mounds of elephant dung and the destruction of cars. At The New Yorker, he’d pretend to faint in elevators. He played Twister and Botticelli at his dinner parties. If things got dull, he’d fall off a couch. He satirized his need to entertain in an early poem called “Thoughts While Driving Home”:

Was I clever enough? Was I charming?

Did I make at least one good pun?

Was I disconcerting? Disarming?

Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?

These details arrive in Adam Begley’s “Updike,” a sympathetic new biography that’s the first but unlikely to be the last of this great American writer — THE great American writer, in many regards. It’s an honorable book but also a slight, frictionless and oddly subdued one, unlikely to jump-start new popular or critical interest in Updike’s vast oeuvre.

Updike’s impulse to charm on the page has been held against him. His exquisite words flowed, some felt, too freely and too amiably. No other American writer who made a splash before 30, Begley observes, “piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss.”

Begley goes on: “He wasn’t despairing or thwarted or resentful; he wasn’t alienated or conflicted or drunk; he quarreled with no one.” It was one of the few un-American things about him, this refusal to let us see him suffer.

It’s one of the achievements of Begley’s book, however, that it so acutely demonstrates how it all, in fact, didn’t come so easily. We witness Updike’s will in the face of repeated early rejections, rebuffs that would have squelched the drive of a less determined artist.

Princeton, to begin, turned him down. At Harvard, where he considered becoming a cartoonist, Archibald MacLeish twice denied him entry into his elite creative writing class. After college, when Updike was newly married and had a family to feed, his autobiographical first attempt at a novel, “Home,” was rejected by Harper. He shelved it.

He soon wrote 250 pages of another, titled “Go Away,” before abandoning it. “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959) would become his official first novel. It, too, was rejected, by Harper, before landing at Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher with whom Updike would profitably remain. Like a salmon swimming upstream, he avoided predators and leapt large impediments.

He arrived at The New Yorker almost right out of college and was instantly seen as a prodigy. But he couldn’t, he knew, remain long on its staff.

He soon fled with his young family to Massachusetts. “I was full,” he remarked, “of a Pennsylvania thing I wanted to say.” He would, of course, write for The New Yorker — poems, stories, criticism — for more than five more decades, collecting what he called “whale-size checks” like krill along the way.

Begley gets Updike’s bedrock story told. His father was a high school mathematics teacher. His more nurturing mother supported his writing and was a writer herself, later publishing short stories in The New Yorker.

At Harvard, Updike’s freshman roommate was Christopher Lasch, who would become the author of “The Culture of Narcissism” (1979). It was a competitive, uneasy friendship. At Harvard, Updike met his first wife, Mary Pennington, to whom he would remain married for more than 20 years. It was their social set in Ipswich, Mass. — the cocktails, the games, the gamboling adultery — that he would describe so lovingly and so wickedly, deploying the full sensorium of his prose, in “Couples” (1968) and in so many short stories.

Updike asked The New Yorker to put away for later use many of his early stories about adultery, to spare Mary’s feelings. It is among Begley’s themes in “Updike” that much of Updike’s fiction sprang almost directly from his life.

Updike married his second wife, his former mistress Martha Bernhard, in 1977, and they remained together until his death. With her arrival, this biography goes somewhat dark, like one of those satellite photographs of North Korea at night. She exiled him from his old crowd, kept the press and even his children with Mary at bay, and attended fully to his career as helpmate and reader.

We learn some new things (or are reminded of things we’ve forgotten) in “Updike.” In 1961 William Shawn tried to persuade him to become The New Yorker’s television critic. He was an adept carpenter. Claire Bloom, after her divorce from Philip Roth, said Updike’s negative review of Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (1993) so distressed Roth that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. (Roth has denied that his depression was Updikian in nature.)

Yet Begley’s book lacks a certain richness and allusiveness. It occupies an awkward biographical no man’s land. It isn’t so rigorous and bristling with facts that it feels definitive, yet it isn’t so lively and argumentative that it succeeds as a buoyant piece of writing.

Updike is not situated, in “Updike,” except in passing, in the whirring galaxy of his competitive cohort, all those gravity-bending white males: Bellow, Styron, Vidal, Roth. We get no sense of how Updike felt about Roth’s brilliant late career run, nor any complicated understanding of why Updike’s own reputation took a comparative nose dive.

Begley describes how Updike was stung by the pounding he took in later years from younger novelists and critics, including David Foster Wallace and James Wood. Wood went so far as to declare that “Updike is not, I think, a great writer.” (In a letter, Updike called Wood “a great annoyance, in part because he is so intelligent, in a needling, fussy kind of way.”)

There is a gently simmering Oedipal quality to this biography. Begley’s father, novelist Louis Begley, was a Harvard classmate and friend of Updike’s. (“According to family legend,” Begley writes, “Updike was the first person to make me laugh.”) Yet Begley, who was for many years books editor at The New York Observer, also assigned Wallace to review the novel “Toward the End of Time” (1997), and the result was slashing. It lumped Updike with other increasingly senile “phallocrats.”

Begley is a gifted literary critic but does not deploy his knife skills to great effect here. There are few penetrating shafts of insight. He never musters a dense argument for Updike’s importance, which would require him to triangulate not just among Bellow and Roth and Mailer but among Proust and Hawthorne and Nabokov and Henry James.

“Updike” races to its close, skimming lightly over Updike’s final decades and novels. He never owned a cellphone or used email. His wife guessed, probably wisely, that email would keep him from getting done what he wanted to get done.

What he did get done is mighty, in scope and in tangled intensity. Begley’s fluid book has its share of nice moments and flickering insights and intimate revelations. But you get the sense that we are just beginning to untangle Updike’s knots.

“Was I wise? Was I wan? Was I fun?” he asked. Yes. And no. And yes.