In the tiny cigar-scented office above the Blue Dolphin restaurant in downtown Ipswich, a telephone shrills. Snatching up the receiver is a lean and slouched young man whose face looks like wood whittled into a trophy and whose hair, beaten flat and brushed forward, lies on his head like a hatchet.
He is John Updike, who in poetic prose sings of sex, sorrow, and salvation in the lives of people whose conversation clouds soar into emotional balloons which, when popped, make for a novel . . . or a short story . . . or a poem. At a month shy of thirty-four, he is considered by many critics as America's greatest living novelist, or at least its most serious.
On the phone is an editor from The New Yorker, who asks how the new novel is going. "Terrible," says Updike with a Harvard accent that has usurped his Pennsylvanian one. "It makes me want to throw up." He's frustrated, he says, from several false starts and has made no progress, a strange situation for a prolific writer who since age twenty-six has produced four novels (Of the Farm is the latest), two volumes of short stories, two books of poetry, and a book of verse for children.
The voice on the line congratulates him on his New Yorker short story, and Updike is pleased, for the piece has a touchy theme involving a white man who pretends he's black to please his wife during a civil rights demonstration on Boston Common. Updike had expected a storm of protest, but the editor tells him all is great. Only one indignant letter came in. "Terrific," Updike says with only a thread of disappointment. The conversation ends after he learns when his next story will appear in the magazine.
He has special affection for The New Yorker, to which he began submitting work when he was fifteen. Seven years later, after obtaining a Harvard education and a wife, the editors accepted a poem and a story. They also gave him a job. He stayed for two years as a staff writer and quit when he felt that a Manhattan apartment was no place to rear children.
He, his wife, and four children now live in a rambling seventeenth-century house in Ipswich, a bedroom of Boston. Updike, however, as much for his wife's sake as his own, writes elsewhere--in this tiny rented office above the Blue Dolphin in Market Street Square, where he is a familiar sight in a woolen sweater, corduroy pants, and canvas shoes.
The citizenry appears pleased to have "a leading young literary figure" in their midst. Recently he spoke at a meeting of the historical society, and an overflow crowd turned out to hear him read from his work as well as the works of others.
He and his wife are members of the town's Fair Housing and Equal Rights Committee, and last year his wife, the daughter of a Unitarian minister and a graduate of Radcliffe, participated in the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama.
He says they chose Ipswich to live in because he loves New England and the seacoast, though he admits that now and then he pines for the Pennsylvania countryside, which accounts for his frequent visits back and his use of the locale in most of his works.
His office, where all his writing is done, is equipped with a desk that came packaged in pieces, with a scarlet imitation-leather couch, a battered bureau painted green, with what looks like a bookcase painted white, with a lamp whose shade is yellowed from tobacco smoke (he smokes cigars, having quit cigarettes two years ago, and believes his writing has lost an edge because of the switch), with a dented file cabinet that supports a flush door acting as a table, with a busy bulletin board, with a portable typewriter he's using for the first draft of his new novel, which is another switch because in previous works he used a pencil, feeling that the pencil put him closer to the paper and made the writing more intimate.
On the wall is a pencil sketch of a nude torso done by Updike when the town had a life drawing class. His education includes a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, no surprise, for his prose has a decided pictorial quality with its precise specks and cosmic colors. Take, for instance, this single sentence about a rain-streaked window in Of the Farm:
"Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain."
Or this about a spring flower garden in Rabbit Run:
"The earth, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven."
Of the Farm is a short novel about a man of Updike's age who returns to his mother's farm in Pennsylvania and acts as the passive, nostalgic brooder in a meadow of memories as his mother and wife vie for his attention.
The Centaur, winner of the National Book Award in l964, is Updike's favorite work. It involves a bumbling and lovable high school teacher and his son, set of course in Pennsylvania.
Rabbit, Run, however, is his most popular novel, particularly among college students, and has been translated into nearly every European tongue. It tells of a former high-school basketball star fleeing and returning to his wife and half falling half in love with a part-time prostitute, who listens to tales of his jump shots and layups. "I was great. It's a fact. I mean, I'm not good for anything now but I really was good at that." The sexual scenes are explicit and at times brutal, with each encounter tinged with sadness, frustration, regret, the thrill of adolescent sex never to be regained. Updike disagrees with this interpretation. He says he regards sex as "beautiful conversation" between two people.
Which is one of the reasons he has little liking for works of fellow novelist Norman Mailer, whose one good book, he says, was The Naked and the Dead. He adds that Mailer, like James Jones (From Here to Eternity), had one big violent experience, the war, and that is all he knows and all he can write about well. Since then, Updike says, Mailer with his "sloppy mind and sloppy life" and sexually obsessed books has become a celebrity of sorts and a bore as a writer. Jones, on the other hand, he says, knows his limitation and plies his craft on the one experience he knows--the war.
Updike says he seldom writes about violence because he had not experienced any. His novels, he says, are more concerned, in a Proustian and Joycean sense, with inner lives, with emotional battles that begin in the brain and often end up in bed.
He has a love of language that is definitely Joycean, and he places Joyce as the intellectual giant of modern literature while viewing most other writers, including himself, as "not particularly intellectual." Very few writers, he says, have the intellectual and educational background of, say, a physicist. And he says he has little use for writers of black comedy or the so-called "sick novels" in which characters are caricatures and the action never seeps beneath the surface.
Among his favorite contemporary novelists are J. D. Salinger and John Cheever. Recently he picked up a copy of Second Skin by John Hawkes, who taught at Harvard and was a favorite of students when Updike was there. Ironically Updike has gained a far wider popularity than Hawkes, who writes with a poetic brilliance that seems to exceed Updike's.
Another irony is that when critics blast Updike the usual charge is that he's too intent on language, not enough on story. "Many people think it's manly to write badly." He says he pays little attention to critics who when they try to write a book seldom produce a good one. "The younger critics like to attack me because they think they can make a reputation for themselves."
With that, interview over, he flicks a cigar ash and returns to his typewriter.
About the author:
Coburn is author of 13 novels, three made into French films. His work has been translated into 14 languages. His latest short fiction will appear in coming editions of The Massachusetts Review and Fifth Wednesday. He lives in Andover, Massachusetts, with his wife Casey Coburn, a former journalist who teaches who teaches writing at a women's jail.
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