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American author and Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike in a youthful portrait, seated on a bench outdoors, holding a cigarette. His novels include Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux and Couples. He was also a long-time contributor and critic for The New Yorker magazine.
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What can you say about John Updike that the writer hasn't already put better and before? He ran his life through the keyboard for five decades, while sticking to an impossible plan: to produce one book a year, and "to be able to defend," he wrote, "every sentence I publish."
He published millions of sentences: short stories, poems, essays, novels. Updike began his career aiming "to transcribe middleness, with all its grits, bumps and anonymities." The effect is of a kind of NASA probe sent to scuttle over every aspect of an American life: childhood, marriage, parenthood, divorce, growing up and old. And of course, sex — Updike became a sort of body laureate of what he called "the astonishing variety of tunes we play on this scale of so few notes."
He came of age after Hemingway and Fitzgerald, when life turned snug and domestic. His work is mostly without bloodshed, the only violence being the bad turns we do each other, in the crunch of satisfying ourselves.
Instead, Updike produced a record of the work schedules, family schedules and pleasure schedules most readers live, with the confused, funny sliding sensation in the background that it all somehow might not be enough. Here he is writing about his most famous character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom: "What does he know? He never reads a book, just the newspaper to have something to say to people, and then mostly human interest stories. ... He loves Nature, though he can name nothing in it. ... He loves money, though he doesn't understand how it flows to him, or how it leaks away. ... What a threadbare thing we make of life!" Yet he captured the sensations at our eyelashes and fingertips, and the internal lightning of plans and arguments we make behind our faces, with a vividness that borders on religion. He once said he felt free to write as honestly as he did, because he believed "God already knows everything anyway and cannot be shocked. And only truth can be built upon."
It's an unmatched American career: 50 years, 60 books, two Pulitzers, a groaning trophy case. It's hard to imagine anything a human being felt — physically, emotionally — that isn't to be found somewhere in Updike. As he knew, he'll be most famous for the four Rabbit novels, which arrived after 1960 at one-decade intervals like yearbooks, a summation of how presidencies, fashion, TV and romantic accommodations touched one family in one Pennsylvania city. He wrote that his favorite sensation was "being out of the rain," but only just — on a porch, say, where you could feel the spray and know the bad weather you weren't in.
For a half century, Updike has been part of the cultural canopy above our heads, a mind and slant between us and everything. Now, for the first time in many readers' lives, that canopy has been removed. His death comes at a sinister moment, with books and magazines on the verge of capsize, and the finances of the country going suddenly rickety the way a family's can go rickety around a kitchen table. There's the sadness, the abruptness and the finality, the magician's trick of a sudden exit. He's still there in the books, of course. He loved the writer Vladimir Nabokov, and at that man's passing he wrote, "His death, at the ripe age of 78, comes too soon, too coarsely — an ugly footnote to a shimmering text, reality's thumbprint on the rainbow." Updike made it to 76.
As always, it's hard to locate brighter words than his. He leaves behind another thumbprint, another rainbow.
David Lipsky is an author and contributing editor at Rolling Stone.