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R.I.P. John Updike
By J.D. Oxblood

Disclaimer #1: My heart goes out to all the friends and family of the recently departed John Updike. I never knew the man personally, and I do not intend for the following piece to be taken — in any way — as an attack or a lack of respect for the dead or the bereaved.

The first time I ever saw John Updike’s name in print was in a Playboy magazine — early 80s, I’m guessing; it might have been an anniversary issue — under a poem entitled, “Cunts.” One line has stuck with me for over twenty years, and I will quote it here, from memory, leaving it to the skeptics to go hunting for the exact verbiage of said quote because, I’m certain, plenty will never believe me and go hunting for the poem either way:

I pulled a tampon with my teeth
And found it
Not so bloody.

Something about that line truly captured my pervy, pubescent imagination, and the line came back to me in Technicolor detail when I pulled my first tampon with my teeth, circa 1989, and at every tampon I’ve pulled since, with teeth or otherwise. Is this a fitting memory for a man of such stature? Does it matter? It occurs to me that no man can truly dictate how he will be remembered, and I suspect that it is with great gratitude that the dead are remembered at all.

**

It is often said that one should not speak ill of the dead. It is never said, yet always implied, that the converse is also true — one should always speak well of the dead. It seems that when anyone dies, the press is always radiant, even if the personal and/or professional history of the deceased was, well, spotty. When Nixon died everyone talked about his foreign policy strengths, not his bad burglary skills. When Kurt Cobain died it was all about the music he didn’t live to make, not so much about his horse habit. And fucking Saddam Hussein — Saddam, remember? The guy who gassed his own people? — even then, every blogger with two commas to rub together had to remind us how he had managed to hold an ethnically disparate country together, something that no one else has been able to do before, or, I needn’t not add, since.

But when someone who was celebrated in life passes on, he or she passes into godlike status. What to do, then, when a God dies?

(We could ask Updike, but, as he said most famously, referring to a God of the baseball diamond: “Gods do not answer letters.”)

If you’re the New Yorker, you dedicate half an issue to him (Feb. 9 & 16, 2009). You give the entire “Talk of the Town” section up to him, with gushing endorsements by two of his colleagues; then you stick in a section of his “greatest hits,” weighing in at 15 pages without a single advertisement. One can only wonder how Updike managed to time his death just before the publication of the New Yorker’s anniversary issue, yet still leaving enough time to get the rag to press. Or, if one is more morbid, or, perhaps, simply better educated, one knows that journalists routinely keep obits on file. When someone important dies, you just whip it out. It’s the journalistic equivalent of always keeping a condom in your wallet — just in case.

Disclaimer #2: I LOVE the New Yorker.

It’s hard not to. I live in New York, I distrust the press at large, and I’m interested in damn near everything. The New Yorker has some of the most talented and skilled writers to be found anywhere, from fantastic critics — Sasha Frere-Jones, who writes about music so well it calls to mind the kind of acid trip in which one can “see” music; dueling film critics Anthony Lane and David Denby, the Laurel and Hardy of the cinema set, Lane hilarious, catty and off the wall, Denby studied and severe — to great contributors who weld tight reporting, keen insight and narrative flow into well-made, airtight supertankers — Tad Friend, George Packer and Larissa MacFarquhar come to mind — to the cartoonists, like Roz Chast and William Haefeli, who bring New York to life in such a neurotic, Seinfeldian light that it makes us feel sane. We’ll forget, for the moment, the cartoons that make no sense whatsoever, the fact that “Shouts and Murmurs” is almost never funny (excluding “The Ambien Cookbook,” which made me wet myself) especially not when it’s written by Woody Allen or Steve Martin. Yawn. (Ok, you codgers have finally been accepted by the mainstream — don’t be so damn proud of it; you used to be funny.) Or that nothing David Sedaris has ever published in the magazine has been half as funny as “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” It’s ok, we get it; the Connecticutters can only take so much catty gay hilarity, it’s ok you’ve toned it down, Davey, you can still come for brunch. Because you don’t read the New Yorker to laugh, anyway. You read it to CRY.

And no one cries saltier tears than the writers who fear they will never see their names on the inside of those covers.

**

But as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. After “Cunts,” I don’t think I thought about the name John Updike until I saw “The Witches of Eastwick” and found out that it was based on one of his books. One passage made me howl:

Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created …woman? … Or do you think it was just another one of His minor mistakes like tidal waves, earthquakes … floods. Think women are like that? What’s the matter? You don’t think God makes mistakes? Course He does. We all make mistakes. Of course when we make mistakes they call it evil. When God makes mistakes they call it … nature. So what do you think? Women. A mistake? Or did He DO IT TO US ON PURPOSE?

But, I thought, did that come from the book, or was that the screenwriter embellishing? Or — better yet — is that the almighty JACK embellishing? You can never tell. The transition from page to screen is such a slippery slope, great movies can be made from mediocre books (“Fight Club”), horrible movies from great books (innumerable), and every now and then, some sneaky bastard creeps in to overthrow everything we thought possible of a writer, like when John Irving wrote his own screen adaptation for “The Cider House Rules” — and won the fucking Oscar.

So, I never read any of Updike’s books. And he published 23 — a very auspicious number — which is a lot for anybody in a lifetime, even if you didn’t count the rest, which, you have to, when it comes to one so prolific. According to Roger Angell, Updike published 146 stories and “five hundred-odd reviews and poems and critical essays in The New Yorker.” Yikes. That’s a ton of stuff. And it is in the face of this deluge that, for the last week and a half, I have been asking myself: how did I come to hate him so much?

(Don’t flip out, yet, I’m not just a “hater,” but a kneejerk hater with a compulsion to work beyond the hate to find its progenitor. So hold on, bear with, because I’ve been doing some heavy reflection and I’m going to flip this. John Updike was a man in the way that Elvis was a man. Yes, and no, if you dig me.)

I read Updike in the New Yorker, like a lot of people. I read his stories; they were well-written but not my thing. Which is kind of like someone born before 1970 saying that they don’t like the Beastie Boys — even they KNOW that the B-Boys are good musicians, they’re just not into it, and can’t get into it. And I read Updike’s essays and his book reviews and I … just started hating to see his name. Something about it didn’t sit well with me — isn’t this guy a novelist? Isn’t he, like, a famous novelist? And here he is criticizing OTHER PEOPLE’S NOVELS? But we’re still supposed to like his, right?

John Updike became more than a man; he became the living embodiment of an institution. He WAS the New Yorker, and he was more than that. He became an authority, and as such, I’m certain, the victim of sniping from the sidelines such as we’ll never see admitted in the pages of the Upper East Side Bible. If I hated him, a poor schlep who sure as hell wasn’t losing any pages to him, there must have been many who cried every time their fiction, or their review, or their investigative journalistic piece was shelved in favor of another piece of manna from heaven. And you can’t blame Updike for any of this. The man was prolific, so much so, that if you looked up the meaning of the word in the dictionary, you wouldn’t see his face, ‘coz the dude didn’t have time to sit for a photo shoot. He cranked it out, and he had a rapt audience, and he had mastered the politics of editors and agents to make sure that his flow was always uninterrupted. From the pen to the eyes of readers; do not pass Go, but be sure to collect $200.

So does an aspiring journalist resent the man for being successful? Is it simply sour grapes? I remember a few years back when Deborah Treisman became the fiction editor of the New Yorker. There was a buzz on the internet — she’s young, she’s dating an indy rocker, maybe now some nobodys will have a shot at being somebody. Those dreams were shattered in an interview in which Treisman said, in response to a question about the “slush pile”:

“Someone who’s submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn’t all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either.”

That’s right. If you don’t already have an agent, or know exactly how to get one, you must not be able to write. Because the business of writing and the craft of writing are exactly the same thing. Thanks, hon. Glad to know you’re interested in new voices. And she is, in her way; since she came on board, the New Yorker has published a lot more fiction originally written in languages other than English, which could be cool, considering how much NOT English we hear in New York … except she doesn’t really publish New Yorkers, either … except for Jonathan Lethem, whose stories are so bad you forget he’s the same genius who wrote “Motherless Brooklyn,” and John Updike, who doesn’t count since he moved to Massachusetts back in — I digress.

But the question remains: is hating a powerful figure simply a by-product? As a corporate drone said to Liz Lemon on a recent episode of “30 Rock:” “When a big one falls, four little ones move up.”

I’d like to think of it as more than that. There is envy, and then there is ENVY. Wanting what someone else has is the cheaper, more disposable version: I want his car, I want to bang his girl, I wish my girl looked like that cutie in a red strapless. The ALL CAPS version comes from somewhere deeper. When you read a line that’s so good, you wish you’d written it. When you hear a line on SNL that came straight from your mouth at a bar on Friday night, and you know that you were so tapped into the Zeitgeist that you wish you had a platform. When you hear a song on the radio and love it so much, it SUCKS, because you can’t get it out of your head and every song after it sounds thin. You know? When your friend makes you laugh so hard that milk comes out your nose — you just HATE him. I mean, don’tcha just HATE Jesus? He’s so nice and so kind and loving and just so GOOD to everyone — how could anyone ever compete with THAT?

And I came to hate John Updike. I told my friends that I would throw a party when he died. (Disclaimer #7: I didn’t.) Because he wasn’t worthy of quiet, seething derision, like some of the writers I’ve known. They get only a twinge, because to feel any more would be akin to giving them credit. Do you know people like this? The trust fund babies who rocked the Iowa Writers Thingy and got con-nect-ed. The guy who graduated Harvard or Yale with a book deal, segued into a publishing career, and never wrote another word? Or the girl who says she wants to be a writer, but is getting her PhD first in Criticism and will … never … write … an … original … word. I’ve met a lot of people like that — money first: work in advertising for a decade with the plan to “go freelance,” and THEN write the great American screenplay. Never mind that after a decade in advertising all you’ll ever be able to write is 3-word taglines. You’ll have a cool title, for sure. Life makes your life.

And Updike… well, he rocked it. He reaped the benefits of not having a day job. That’s the true gravy train. And once he hit that point, the “fuck it, I make enough dough, I’m not sitting in an office, I’m moving my family to Mass and taking a load off,” he couldn’t stop. He was a true writer — even though he could have coasted, published half of what he did and made a comfortable living, taken up a hobby in model trains or 19 year-old prostitutes, he KEPT WRITING. It was his day job and his night job, and it’s why he left such a phat body of work.

And it hit me, I dunno, yesterday, on the 7th draft of this piece and knowing it was too long and knowing that I didn’t care, that he had to die for me to learn this lesson. I would have kept on hating him until the day of my “RIP Updike” party, and it was only his death that truly drove it home. He never stopped, he never stopped, he never stopped. Dude was still publishing right up until his death. He lived it. And if being a successful novelist doesn’t give you the right to review other people’s books, what does? That bitch with the PhD who’s never written a line that wasn’t followed by a reference number in superscript? The guy with a file cabinet full of rejection letters for his ten-volume History of the Semi-Colon? Some internet asshole like me? Updike had the skills, he paid the bills, and he KEPT WRITING — his own shit, and his views on other people’s shit. And when you really break it down, it’s all your own shit — your stories, your opinions, your voice, your life.

**

I said before that Updike had become more than a man, almost an institution, and, in many ways, we are right to mourn the passing of said institution, even if we never knew the man. The rules are changing. It doesn’t take an editor, an agent, or a friendship with a man like Updike to get people to read your shit anymore. It just takes an internet connection and a long list of Facebook friends. I’m showing my age here, but I’m not convinced it’s a good thing.

Whether you love Updike or hate him, his passing is truly the end of an era, not unlike the passing of Sinatra. There will not be another Updike. Now, Updike is just another name to be Googled, right alongside the names of bloggers who can’t write a sentence without fucking swearing. All writers — journalists, screenwriters, novelists — and all ARTISTS, for that matter, are endlessly searching for validation, be it in the form of an advance or a great review. AND MONEY DOES NOT CUT IT, people. Being popular is not the same as being good. George W. was once popular. There is good reason why, among the educated, even those who don’t like John Updike have to admit that he was a great writer, just like those who actually like “The DaVinci Code” have to admit that Dan Brown can’t write his way out of a Denny’s placemat maze without two crayons and a bottle of White-Out. Just because you have 500 Facebook friends does not mean that you’re cool. If you only have two Facebook friends, and one of them is David Bowie, I want an invitation to your cocktail party. And while I know a lot of people who think they’d be happier if they had more money, I know just as many artists who really would be happier if they simply felt more appreciated.

**

I could not love him in life, because he symbolized everything that, I feared, I could never be. He was a stand-in for my own frustration, my own sense of having my face perpetually pressed to the glass, looking in but not allowed entry. The glass door is being shattered, day by day, and now, I fear, there may be no “in” to request entry to. And what, then, of the dreams of being more than just another tiny voice? What then, of the search for validation?

I could not love him in life, and so I have learned to love him in death. To John, let me say that you are an inspiration, in your tireless, HABITUAL effort to WRITE. I’ll be dead soon, too, and we’ll finally grab that drink. I hear every one of them fanatical Islamist martyrs has got 70 virgins waiting for him up there, and we all know those impotent dudes don’t have the slightest idea what to do with them. I’ll be your wingman.

Kiss kiss,
JDX

**

Postscript:
I’ll close with some words from the man himself, reprinted in last week’s issue of the New Yorker:

From “Dentistry and Doubt:”

Benton’s heart beat like a fly’s head against a closed window as the dominatrix moved across the basement, did some unforeseeable things by the pipes, and returned with a full enema. A drop of liquid, by a miracle of viscosity, hung wavering to the application tip. Benton spread his cheeks while the dominatrix’s back was still turned. When at last she pivoted, the instrument tilted and ready, a quiet tension beneath her breasts indicated approval and perhaps amusement at finding him in such readiness. “Open a little wider, please,” she said. “Thank you.” The tip moved closer. It was under Benton’s balls and out of focus. “Now, this might hurt a little.” What a kind thing to say! The sharp prick and the consequent slow, filling ache drove Burton’s eyes up….

Disclaimer #18: The above quote from “Dentistry and Doubt” has been dipped repeatedly in Oxblood; I believe that Updike, who considered himself a humor writer above all else, would have approved of the send-up. Anyone quoting this as being Updike’s own really needs to get a grip and check another reference besides Wikipedia. Read the original at:

http://www.newyorker.com/

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