Not once but twice did John Updike make the cover of Time, back when that was a big deal for anyone, much less a novelist.
First in 1968 for Couples, his best seller about extramarital carousing in the Boston suburbs. Time labeled its cover: "The Adulterous Society," a topic Updike explored as a writer and a participant.
He made the cover again in 1983, after his novel Rabbit Is Rich (the third of what would be a quartet about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a small-town basketball star who peaked in high school) swept all three major literary prizes: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. That's rarer than a horse winning the Triple Crown.
Now, five years after Updike's death at 76, comes Adam Begley's sympathetic and thorough biography, Updike, in which Begley acknowledges he's rooting for a surge in Updike's "posthumous reputation."
Begley, former books editor of The New York Observer, repeats scholar Harold Bloom's oft-quoted quip about Updike being a "minor novelist with a major style." And he notes David Foster Wallace's1997 put-down that grouped Updike with Philip Roth and Norman Mailer as "the three Great Male Narcissists … now in their senescence."
But Begley makes a strong case for reading or rereading Updike's best work (not just the Rabbit novels but dozens of short stories, essays and reviews). He ducks the toughest question. Predicting Updike's "eventual place in the pantheon of American literature," Begley writes, "is an amusing pastime," but not all that useful.
Much of his research has gone into tracing links between Updike's fiction and his own messy life, filled with affairs and shadowed by his love for an overbearing mother. By most accounts, he was a better writer than father or husband. He could be insecure and jealous of rivals such as Roth and John Cheever.
To say Updike wrote about himself in his fiction, which includes 27 novels and 146 short stories that appeared in The New Yorker, is beyond understatement. Begley playfully tries out several adverbs: He "wrote about himself copiously." He "wrote about himself reflexively," and "compulsively or even — as some would claim ad nauseam."
Begley finally settles on three adverbs: Updike wrote about himself "naturally, then very quickly learned to write about himself professionally. On his best days, he wrote about himself creatively, and his fiction became part of his autobiographical legend."
Among baseball fans, Updike would be celebrated if he had written nothing more than his non-fiction account in The New Yorker in 1960 of Ted Williams' last game at Fenway Park. (In his final at bat, Williams hits a home run, then fails to acknowledge the fans' cheers, which prompts Updike to write, "Gods don't answer letters.")
Begley's interest is more in a mysterious unnamed woman Updike said he had gone to visit that day in Boston in an apparent assignation. Had she been home, Updike later wrote, he would not have gone to the game. Begley adds, "It's also possible that he invented the whole episode to add spice to the story of how he came to be at the ball game." That's the trouble with novelists: They make stuff up even about their own lives.
It's not an authorized biography, although Begley acknowledges the help of Updike's first wife, Mary Weatherall, and their four children, but not of Updike's second wife, Martha Bernhard Updike. (She's described as her husband's "self-appointed gatekeeper.")
Ultimately, Updike's own life is not as interesting — or knowable — as the inner life of many of his characters. The more I read about Updike, the more I wanted to go back and read Updike. As Begley writes, "The great stack of books Updike left behind is the monument that matters most."
By Adam Begley
Harper, 558 pp.
Three stars (out of four)