Remembering John Updike, Master Of Fiction

NPR's Scott Simon takes a moment to remember the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who died Tuesday of lung cancer. Updike was 76.

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Nobody put together words more lucidly, dreamily or sharply than John Updike. He died this week at the age of 76 after writing more than 22 novels, poems, short stories, essays and critiques. I'll miss the three or five more novels I'm sure he might have written, as even into old age he continued to grow and challenge himself.

Here are the opening lines from his 1960 novel, "Rabbit, Run."

(Reading) Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with the backboard bolted to it. Legs. Shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seem to catapult their voices high into the moist, March air, blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches. The ball leaps over the heads of the six and lands at his feet. He catches it on the short bounce with a quickness that startles them. As they stare, hushed, he sets his feet with care, wiggling the ball with nervousness in front of his chest. The cuticle moons on his fingernails are big, and the ball seems to ride up the right lapel of his coat and comes off his shoulder. As his knees dip down, it appears the ball will miss because he shot it from an angle. But the ball isn't going toward the backboard. It wasn't aimed there. But it drops into the circle of the rim, whipping the net with a ladylike whisper. "Hey!" he shouts in pride. "Luck," says one of the kids.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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Novelist, Essayist John Updike Dead At 76

Updike For 'This I Believe'

John Updike, circa 1955 i i

Updike, shown here circa 1955, published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was 22. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
John Updike, circa 1955

Updike, shown here circa 1955, published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was 22.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Updike, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, prolific man of letters and erudite chronicler of sex, divorce and other adventures in the postwar prime of the American empire, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 76.

Updike once claimed that he was 15 before he read his first novel, but thereafter, the author wasted little time in mastering the art of fiction. He published his first short story, "Friends from Philadelphia," in The New Yorker when he was 22, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later.

A literary writer who frequently appeared on best-seller lists, the tall, hawk-nosed Updike vowed early in his career to write a book each year. Working at this clip, he published more than than 25 novels and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, criticism, a memoir and even a famous essay about baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike created his best-known character, a former high school basketball star named Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run and later returned to the character in three more novels and a novella.

The "Rabbit" books deal with the character's struggles with growing up, losing his star status, a troubled marriage, adultery and children. Updike won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1982 for Rabbit is Rich and another Pulitzer in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. He also received the National Book Award in 1964 for his novel The Centaur, which follows a depressed school teacher and his anxious son in rural Pennsylvania.

In 1998 Updike received the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a lifetime achievement award issued by the National Book Awards.

Throughout his career, the author never seemed to lose sight of the power of words. In a 2005 "This I Believe" essay he wrote: "I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness."

From NPR staff and AP reports



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