Updike’s Last Works, and My Updike Story

  At least for now, I’ve foresworn another extended period of mourning for John Updike, America’s greatest writer (though I reserve the right to break out the elegies at a moment’s notice.)

Meanwhile, two posthumous collections from the master have appeared. These could be the last, though given Updike’s amazing productivity, who knows how many others might still be in the pipeline? And of course, editors and publishers will be remixing and rematching his stories for decades to come.  The New York Times‘ review of both collections is here 

By the way, linking to that earlier blog entry reminds me that in the midst of all the Updike farewells,  I forgot to tell my own humble Updike story. So here it is, perhaps worth no more than you paid for it.

Around 1981-82 I was trying to make the jump from full-time teaching into journalism and had set up a nice transitional gig with the then-robust  Dallas Morning News. I was the unofficial literary go-to guy, writing frequent book reviews and interviewing circuit-riding authors who came to town pushing their books. It was great chillin’, as we did not say then,  with the likes of Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley Jr, James Dickey,  Reynolds Price, Joseph Heller, James Michener, Dorothy Uhnak,  Richard Condon, Jamake Highwater, Wilfred Sheed and others. I was already a longtime Updike lover  when he came to read from a new book–it must have been Rabbit is Rich, the third volume of the Rabbitalogy–  at the SMU Literary Festival.

After the event Updike was to be feted at some Park Cities matron’s home. I finagled an invitation, another proof of the awesome power held by the ink-stained press  in those days. To his hosts’ surprise, Updike was polite but not effusive,  quickly proving himself capable of answering long questions with short answers.   At one point he drifted away from the crowd and stood by himself on the cobblestoned  patio where the beer keg was.  I glommed on and asked a few more questions. I recall one had to do with his famed essay on Ted Williams’ last game at Fenway, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” After that piece he had never written about baseball again,  and I wondered why. His straightforward answer, so different from the teasing roundabouts of his prose, was something like, “That one pretty well exhausted my fascination with the game, and after that I found I had no more to say.”

Later in the evening he agreed to sign some books, so I abandoned the cold  mask of objectivity and lined up like a fan. ( I had brought along my hardcover copy of Rabbit Redux, the second Angstrom book, hoping for just such a moment.) It was close to the holidays, and when my turn came I think I said something about the weather in Boston, where he lived, or white Christmases or something.

To my delight he opened the  book and  began sketching an apple-cheeked Santa Claus on a blank page. He added voice bubbles with “Ho, Ho Ho!” inside, then signed it “To Chris Tucker–John Updike.”  Hoping for more repartee, I  mentioned his early desire to be an artist, which he had confessed in some essay, and he said, “Now only the doodles remain.”

Fast forward a couple of years to a painful, scorched-earth divorce –not Updike’s, or one of his character’s, but mine. Along with so much else I lost the book to my ex, who cared little for Updike but who knew how to hurt me deeply. I never saw the book again and never wanted to ask our son about it, because I knew he would either lie or tell me she had sold it. Hope she got at least fifty bucks.

Can this tale possibly have a happy ending? Fast forward more than 25 years  to January 2008. Updike was again in Dallas for a lecture/Q&A at the Nasher Sculpture Garden. Once more the Morning News came through for me, and after the lecture I stood  in a much longer line than the one in 1981, holding my just-purchased copy of The Early Stories. As I inched forward I saw Updike exchanging bits of small talk with other loyalists, and at one point a young woman with the center  asked that people not request lengthy or multiple dedications–“To Bud and Karleen, whose brief sojourn in the East Village ten years ago was enlivened by a discussion of one of my New York stories, ‘The Lucid Eye in Silver Town.'”

Finally I reached the signing table, and as Updike opened my book I couldn’t help but mention that he had signed another book for me long ago, and had even drawn a Santa Claus, but the book  had vanished in the chaos of divorce.

“Oh?” he said, squinting up at me with a half-grin. “Well, we can fix that.”

And, I swear, he proceeded to draw the identical Santa,with the apple cheeks and billowing white hair and  voice bubbles saying “Ho, Ho, Ho,”  and signed it to me again.

I could have hugged him, and now I wish I had.

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