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John Updike

August 14, 2011

What happened? One of America’s finest novelists dies of lung cancer age 76, less than a month into the year, and an Englishman calls him as a solo! Surely winning a bad sex-writing award from the Literary Review last year for The Widows of Eastwick, sequel to The Witches, didn’t fool you into thinking he was younger and fitter than he really was? After all, Norman Mailer got his award posthumously.

Sex was Updike’s topic. In youth he wrote about it, and in old age he reminisced. Not gay, or group, or anything fancy. Just straight fucking – one man, one woman. He took it seriously, neither romanticising nor trivialising, but avoiding the angst of Roth, or the violence of Mailer.

His heroes, Rabbit, Bech and the rest, were promiscuous males, which may explain why some women disliked him. They failed to recognise that controversial lines like this one from Couples, “as a raped woman might struggle to intensify the deed”, could accurately describe the thoughts of a certain sort of American male, without being Updike’s own. Liberals weren’t too keen either. A churchgoing white male, who disliked the swinging sixties, he reluctantly supported the Vietnam War.

He had psoriasis, which endeared him to Amelia, and he stuttered, which endeared him to me. Fortunately for all of us, neither stopped him getting laid, and he learned enough, bonking in suburbia, to describe adultery in America better than anyone.

So why did you all miss him? Here’s an extract from his forthcoming poem Requiem.

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

That’s it. You thought he’d already gone.

Jim Thornton.  Reprinted from AODeadpool 2009

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