It was something of a surprise to read last night of John Updike’s death on Tuesday. Updike was a mere 76, practically a youngster these days, and I’d heard no rumors that he was sick. He was though, with cancer. Thirty years ago my high school English teacher (a huge fan of Updike’s, he fought the rural-minded, easily-shocked local school board to let him teach Updike in his advanced class – and won) said that Updike would never really die because he was the type whose ghost would be an unrelenting nag.
That was uncharitable and probably not true. From what I’ve heard (living in Massachusetts, you hear about Updike all the time, it’s in the air, like carbon from outdoor barbecues in the South), he was a charming, funny man, and from what I’ve read he seems to have had an almost comic eye for silliness and the small, savory defeats that make up our smaller, less savory days.
Wherein lies the problem, of course. Updike was a maddening writer. A real wordsmith, it often didn’t seem to matter to him what he was writing about, only that he was writing. “I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967, and it too often seemed that that was precisely what he was doing. His poetry in particular (but his prose was infected with it, too) suffered (imo, of course) from a focus on matters so inconsequential that it was almost as if Updike was challenging himself to find a way to take meaningless trivia and make it sound as if it were of lasting and even global significance. Needless to say, he failed. Odes to storm windows notwithstanding, banality is banality no matter how much you weigh it down with pretty words.