27 January 2009

"I didn't know he was even sick": Updike, Angstrom and procrastination

I can't claim to be a big John Updike fan, I've only read a couple of his books, but I do feel somewhat perturbed to learn of his death today. For a California boy he represented the leather-patch-on-the-tweed-jacket kind of writer--the WASPy, New England fellow who snapped away on his Underwood and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Anyone who made their living writing was, for me, someone to emulate. But all of the iconic imagery that surrounds writers pretty much blows away like so much fog (or cigarette smoke) as one gets older, and you are left with whatever you can glean from the work. This is as it should be, of course, if you've actually read some.

While I've read a few of Updike's novels and own some of the critical essays and poetry, the book that sticks most to my ribs is Rabbit, Run, which I read a few years back. In his introduction to the Everyman's Library collection of the four Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike says the books became a sort of "running report on the state of my hero and his nation". I don't know about that, but I do remember loving the first one. Rabbit became a kind of touchstone for American men that find themselves battered and buffeted by modern life (read: most of us). And the approximate 10-year span in real and fictional time between the books appealed to the procrastinator in me: my plan was to read the books in the same time sequence--one every ten years. Checking the copyright page, however, I appear to be about four years overdue in reading the second book.

I'm also delinquent in reading the second book of Angstrom's literary descendant Frank Bascomb, hero of Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day. I did enjoy Sportswriter finally, though Bascomb's wishy-washy, ambivalent moodiness nearly made me put the book down prematurely.

So now it will be back to the Everyman collection, after I've finished Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Maybe Independence Day after that. You can only put things off for so long, you know: before you know your time will be up.

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