In my former (and future) life, I was a novelist. I can only hope that one day I might write nearly as masterfully as my favorite contemporary novelist, Pulitzer Prize winning John Updike, who died today at age 76 from lung cancer.
Updike’s writing isn’t for everyone, and I am feeling a bit like worlds colliding mentioning him in this space, as I doubt he’d be of much interest to the majority of my readers here, if only for some the explicit content in his books. But he wrote unabashedly and frankly, and while this could belie his Protestant upbringing, this frankness in a weird way reflected it: Updike didn’t mind at all showing sin in all its sordid glory. That forbidden fruit probably did not look rotten, after all. Updike’s work is infused with a through-running quality of God-hauntedness.
This is from my tribute today at The Thinklings:
I was a late adopter to Updike’s writing, but I quickly became obsessed. He easily supplanted Paul Auster as my favorite contemporary novelist, and he might have been America’s greatest living novelist. Until today.
I remember reading Rabbit, Run, the first in Updike’s four Rabbit novels, and being blown away. I’ve been reading novels, including literary novels, since I was a kid, but in my late twenties I had no idea someone could write like that. And by “like that” I mean “apparently just for me.”
Since then I’ve rather quickly been making my way through the rest of his works. Updike’s stories are mythic in weight but highly specific and relational in content. He wrote about lots of marriages, each of them Adam and Eve in the broken garden, and lots of affairs, each of them as ridiculous to us as they are sensible to the adulterers.
Updike wrote ecstatically but not chaotically. I think that’s what got me every time: the controlled way he seemed to open a vein on the page.
He was uninhibited and wrote with zero pretension, despite his snooty upbringing and the pretensions of lots of his characters. He somehow managed to capture the curious national blend of sex and religion and American dreaming. I don’t know of any other Christian writer (or, Christian who is a writer, if you prefer) who was as frank about total depravity (and called it that).
Bottom line, though: He told stories. And Updike could just flat out write.
Gonna miss him.
Justin Taylor has a nice post here, reprinting Updike’s stellar Easter poem.