Ironically enough, on a day in which the New York Times runs an article highlighting the popularity of vanity publishing—self-publishing a book—which on average generates sales of 150 books in total, per author, it also dutifully records the death of one of our greatest men of letters, John Updike, who has sold millions of books to a public thirsty for his work.
As a junior at Rutgers studying creative writing, my instructor told us to choose one author and read his or her entire body of work. Accidentally, fortuitously, unthinkingly, I chose Updike, one of the great examples of why it’s often better to be lucky than good in your decisions.
I began and continued to read his works, and am currently finishing his latest, The Widows of Eastwick, providentially written about the area were I live (“Eastwick” is a combination of my town, East Greenwich, and the adjoining Warwick or Wickford, I’m not sure which). His final book will appear in June.
When I think of great, contemporary writers I tend to think of John Irving and Phillip Roth, but Updike has always stood apart for me, a man of enormous intellect whose non-fiction and criticism are as lyrical as his fiction. Best known for the “Rabbit Run” tetralogy, his works actually range far and wide, always describing the nuances of middle class life and values (or lack thereof).
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom resides with Jay Gatsby as an epochal fictional presence in American letters. The “Rabbit Run” series is one of fewer than four or five I’ve ever read twice, at vastly different stages of my life, to gain further understanding.
I want to continue reading Updike’s body of work but, alas, it is approaching completion. I think back to that assignment in late 1966, and I realize that I, too, am nearing completion.