I firmly believe that we respond to books based on the times in our lives when we encounter them. A book that you don’t get in high school suddenly triggers an “a-ha” moment in your late twenties. Or a book you loved in your late twenties leaves you cold when you reread it on your (gulp) fortieth birthday. I’m sorry to say that I never encountered one of John Updike’s novels when I was prepared to understand or appreciate the story he gave me.
I’m not sure why I picked up The Centaur – probably because I loved Greek mythology when I was in my early teens – but it didn’t really engage me. I was even younger than the teenaged Peter Caldwell, and had little sympathy for the mild contempt with which he treated his father. I know why I tried The Witches of Eastwick, but somehow the titillating sex all the reviewers wrote about wasn’t so titillating, and hey, how was I supposed to relate to a bunch of artsy middle-aged witches? Rabbit, Run drifted around my college English department, but we were living on the other side of the sexual and cultural revolution that Updike was seeing on the horizon in 1960. Harry Angstrom’s story played itself out in at least a dozen of my neighbors’ homes, with variations Updike probably couldn’t have gotten in print at the end of the Eisenhower era. It was a long way from there to The Terrorist, which kept me awake and reading intently well into the night (incidentally, I think Updike redeemed The Centaur’s George Caldwell and closed the loop when he made guidance counselor Jack Levy the unlikely hero), but I wanted more than Updike’s deliberately open ending gave.
Remember, these are all my problems, not Updike’s.
A couple of weeks ago, in one of those situations where you find yourself sitting around with nothing to read but a stack of old magazines, I picked up a New Yorker and read a little column about an older man who loses his treasured hat while pruning the bushes in his high desert home. The search leads to a random encounter with two strangers, and for an ordinary few minutes a Roto-Rooter man, an elderly retiree, and the writer share an unlikely intersection. The hat is found, it’s importance and meaning explained, and each individual continues on his way. The genius of the piece wasn’t in the setup, it wasn’t in the awkward and indeterminate ending, and it definitely wasn’t stitched together with a homily on strangers being friends you haven’t met yet. The genius lay in the accumulation of details – the slope of a hill, the feel of the scratching branches, the reticence of a man who is pressed for information he fears might sound like gloating.
When I looked at the byline, I finally got it. In what is probably his last column for The New Yorker, John Updike taught me what I’d been missing all this time. And now that I know what to look for, I’ll have to hope that my life and his writing will cross paths again. Next time, I hope I’ll be better prepared.