Monday, February 9, 2009

Boy, do I love that guy's books

One of the downsides of being abroad is that unless you make the effort, it's easy to lose track of what's going on in the States. For example, it's snuck up on me that spring training starts in less than two weeks; if I had been back home, I would have been much more aware of this. It was only today that I discovered with great sadness that John Updike died a couple of weeks ago. I felt the same way I did upon hearing of Paul Newman's death last year, like a blow to the chest.

I've been reading John Updike's books since I was a teenager. I think the first one I read was Couples, which I would sneak out of my parents bookshelf when I was probably about 13. I snuck the book because it was considered quite risqué in its time, a novel that The New York Times said "was for its time remarkably frank about sex and became well known for its lengthy detail and often lyrical descriptions of sexual acts."

I read the four volumes in the Rabbit series in sequence over about a 25 year span, living roughly a generation or so behind Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. I read a number of his other novels -- not all of them, of course, as he was a prodigious writer -- as well as having enjoyed his essays and short stories in The New Yorker.

When I finished my doctorate in 1997, I bought myself a two-part present. The first part of the gift was a recently-published collection of all four Rabbit books in one volume, Rabbit Angstrom, The Four Novels. The second part of the gift was to take the summer between finishing grad school and starting work at Michigan to reread the four novels in sequence again, all 1,568 pages and 2.4 pounds of it.

My friend Michael Olivas, who wrote a book about Updike and is the former editor of the Updike Newsletter, penned a wonderful remembrance about him on the New Yorker website. I've taken the liberties of reprinting it here, as I was unable to link directly to it.

Rabbit Fan Bids Updike Adieu: John Updike (1932-2009), RIP

Early this morning, I learned of John Updike's passing, and those who know this side of me have been calling and emailing me all day, as if I lost a family member. In a way, I did. When I was a boy, I loved mythology, and carried around a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology. In those days, I could tell you Hank Aaron's batting average, and how well he and the Milwaukee Braves had done the night before, and how he had beaten Rocky Calavito in the tv show, Home Run Derby. And I could tell you all the Greek and Roman gods and other mythological figures, courtesy of Edith Hamilton.

My Cousin Margaret Valdez took note, and as an eighth grade graduation present to me in 1964, she bought me John Updike's novel The Centaur, a book I have read regularly since then and have always loved. It is about a boy with psoraisis (a skin disease I have had since I was a boy) and his schoolteacher father. When she discovered further how much I loved Updike and the gift, she got me a subscription to The New Yorker, where Updike was a staff writer. This exposure to such a wonderful writer and magazine encouraged me in a way that no other gift has ever done since then. Today, I give magazine subscriptions and books as gifts, in memory of the profound effect these two gifts had on me.

In graduate school at Ohio State, I wrote my American Literature MA thesis on Updike, published my first book on him (NY: Garland, 1974), and became the Editor of the Updike Newsletter for almost a decade. When I became a law professor, I gave it up and passed it to another scholar. But I never lost my love for Updike's work or the New Yorker, where he regularly published fiction and book reviews.

My late father once made fun of my reading habits, saying that my reading Updike was "nothing like my real life," a point that was accurate enough but that missed the point. I always have loved good writing, and Updike's suburban New England world was no less a part of my imagination than were Neruda's or Garcia Marquez' or Shakespeare's worlds. In fact, that was the point, at least to a young boy growing up in a large family in New Mexico.

When I was editor of the Newsletter, I corresponded with him and with his Knopf editor, Judith Jones, about editorial matters--foreign editions of his work, limited editions, that kind of thing. He spoke twice at the University of Houston, but we never actually met. Once, I was scheduled to introduce him to the Honors College, but a baby niece died and I had to be away, and about two years ago, he returned, and I simply lurked and did not stand in line to meet him, either at UH or at the Alley Theater, where he spoke that night.

In his wonderful essay, On Meeting Authors, he wrote about having once met his idol and New Yorker fellow writer/cartoonist James Thurber (an Ohio State grad--his papers and cartoon originals are in OSU's Thurber Rare Book Room) and E. B. White, also a New Yorker alum. In the essay, he notes that neither of the great literary men were very nice, in contrast to his high expectations formed by having read their work. Characteristically, he wrote: "Meeting authors is like seeing light from a star that has moved on." Now that his star and light have moved on, we still have his work. Through our writing we are all so well met, even if we have never met.

That was what I have been thinking about all day, so I pass it to you. If you want to read a splendid US writer, pick up The Centaur or drink deeply in his Rabbit quartet. I hope that he and my Cousin Margaret, who passed about 8 years ago in her native Santa Fe, meet each other and know the combined effect they both had on this young boy.

Michael A. Olivas
January 27, 2009, Santa Fe, New Mexico


  1. Yes, Updike was amazing. I listened to excerpts of interviews with him on Fresh Air last week -- really great stuff.

    On another note, I didn't know you were friends with Olivas. Craig Kridel, here at USC, is good friends with him too.

  2. Yes, I've known Michael for a while, he's been a good mentor to me throughout my career. I've just updated this by including what Michael wrote on the New Yorker website

  3. I remember reading the short story A&P in 12th grade AP English. I really, really liked that story.