The Last Word : A Renaissance writer
On January 27, 2009, one of America's preeminent authors passed away at the age of 76. John Updike was the quintessential prolific writer, a master in all its forms: novel, essay, criticism, short story, and verse. According to Michiko Kakutani writing in The New York Times on Wednesday, Jan. 28, Mr. Updike "moved fluently from fiction to criticism, from light verse to short stories to the long-distance form of the novel: a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words."
They just don't make them like that any more. But Mr. Updike was more. Putting the hurly burly of New York behind him, he settled his family in Ipswich where he took a civic interest and served on the Democratic town committee and on the board of his congregational church. The man who examined to the finest detail the lives of ordinary men, Rabbit Angstrom most notably, lived among men. Although he garnered critical acclaim and not a few significant prizes, first and foremost, John Updike was a writer. That's what he did. He wrote. "Rabbit Run," "Couples," "Bech," "The Witches of Eastwick." Right up until his death, Updike wrote.
What determines the distinction between a good author and a great one? Such a subjective question. One can have favorite authors, prolific authors, popular authors; dense-writing, meta-writing and obscure authors who are considered by critics to be tops in their field, but so few make it into the pantheon of important writers; writers whose names are synonymous with literature. John Gardner, not the mystery writer, but the author of "The World According to Garp;" Margaret Atwood, possibly Saul Bellow, certainly William Styron, achieve this distinction by virtue of their works. There is a literariness, an interior story beneath the overt story that speaks to the human condition. "Rabbit Run" is more than Updike simply telling the story of a man with a nickname from his glory days who examines his life and finds it wanting. A truly great writer is one whose work speaks to the reader, saying, "I know who you are and my characters are you." We have enough heroic characters, and protagonists who earn lots of money, consort with glamorous women, date high-powered men, or use clever tactics to get what they want. But the real hallmark of a great character is that he or she endures, experiences, overcomes, and reacts to events and situations that make the reader understand that the story being told is a human experience. It isn't enough to be entertained; the reader must empathize with that character. In reading one particular line or a perfectly crafted paragraph, the should think reader, "Oh, yes. I've felt that way. I've just never put it into words." At heart some truth is exposed. A man may be perfectly happy, and yet stray. A woman may love her children, yet want to run away. Temptation is overwhelming.
Characters do impulsive things, often not even knowing why, knowing only that change must happen. A great writer will make that lapse or sin forgivable; take that lapse or sin or failing and turn it into a story that the reader will agree to believe. Updike gave us an ordinary man in Rabbit Angstrom, and we believe his story because Updike did.