Reading Updike and Thinking About Death

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I read a short story by John Updike the other night, during the insomniac hours, and I suddenly realized I associate Updike with death. Our paths crossed twice over the years, Updike’s and mine, in ways that were memorable for me, but that I doubt very much even registered on the Richter scale of his consciousness.

The first time was just after my father had been killed. My father died violently, and in misplaced anger and confusion I walked out on my then wife and my daughter. I was as completely and totally lost as I have ever been in my life. A friend in New York took me in. We shared his dreary, filthy, sixth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side and both of us flailed around trying to make something of our lives and accomplishing little, drinking heavily and doing a lot of drugs and other equally stupid and dangerous things. It was a dark time, and I felt as if the only thing I wanted to do was to explode.

But my friend came from a very wealthy family and they had, among other residences, an immense shared-extended-family house on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, very like something out of a short story by John Cheever. (Goodbye, My Brother, to be precise.) There was to be some weekend family event, and because I was lost and teetering on the brink of explosion or implosion, my friend kindly invited me up to the island. Along with other family members and guests staying in that vast shingled compound that weekend were John Updike and his wife. I knew who he was, of course, but I had never read any of his work back then, so beyond introductions and brief, polite chatter I never really spoke to him. Everybody, including my friend, played a card game, the name of which I cannot recall. There was an immense round table, and the object of the game was discard as many cards as possible as quickly as possible. It was played at lightening speed with loud good humor. No one in my family played cards of any kind, so I was a complete novice, way out of my league, and after three hands in which someone else won each time before I could even get my cards organized by suit or number, or even comprehend what I was holding, I withdrew and simply watched the others. Updike was tall, with a very distinctive, exotic face, rather like a cheerful and mischievous devil, but I remember his wife, Mary, better than I do him; very sexy in a zaftig, clean-scrubbed way, with a thick mane of hair pulled back into a ponytail. They looked very much like a couple out of one of his own short stories. (Possibly a story about the death of a marriage; they divorced later.)

The next time I saw him was twelve years later, a year or so after my mother had died. There was a big gala celebrity event being held in New York to raise money for some charity. I had achieved my own minor celebrity by then, and I had been invited to walk on stage and wave. I wasn’t clear how this was going inspire anyone to donate money to any charity, but I agreed to attend and flew back east. It was an unbelievable gathering of fame and talent. There weren’t enough chairs to go around, and all the actors were milling around in an upstairs room, cursing freely because—quite wisely—there was no bar. Perry King and I stood together and star-gazed. Jack Palance was rude and ominous. Michael Caine walked by, asking—like everyone else—where the damned bar was. When I went to find a restroom, a stout lady in pink chiffon who had taken her shoes off was trying to put them back on while standing, and she started to lose her balance. I caught her arm, and Olivia de Havilland turned to thank me. In the elevator, exhausted from the red-eye, I put my head back and closed my eyes. The elevator stopped, someone got on, and as the elevator started up again I thought, I’m being rude and what’s more I’m going to fall asleep if I don’t make an effort, and I opened my eyes to find myself gazing at Lawrence Olivier. Pierce Brosnan, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Sidney Poitier, William Shatner, Jimmy Stewart, many, many others, some still household names, some, like me, more transitory. It was that kind of event. And one of the celebrities I recognized was John Updike, but I still hadn’t read any of his work, and I was too shy to approach him. Later, when I mentioned the incident to someone, she told me I should have spoken to him, that Updike was quite star-struck and would have been delighted and delightful.

The next time he crossed my path was after the horrors of 9/11. I was waiting in a doctor’s office and in a copy of the New Yorker was a short story by Updike, called Varieties of Religious Experience, written from the point of view of three of the people killed that awful day. It was the first piece of his work I ever read and I remember being stunned that he could have written so insightfully and beautifully about that tragedy so soon after it occurred.

And then, the other night, a story about the death of a marriage.

But what I want to share with you is a poem of his about death. Like everything else he ever wrote, he approached it from an unexpected angle, holding up the mirror of human experience from the unique perspective of a genius.

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death

Is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,

Which took a whole life to develop and market –

The quips, the witticisms, the slant

Adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest

The lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched

In the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,

Their tears confused with their diamond earrings,

Their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,

Their response and your performance twinned.

The jokes over the phone. The memories packed

In the rapid-access file. The whole act.

Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;

Imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

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