Here we go again with another Zukus eulogy.  The other day, John Updike, native of Shillington, PA, near Reading, died.  Updike was, in my humble estimation, the most talented writer of my lifetime.  An acolyte of John O’Hara, for while it was apparent, at least to me, that Gibbsville’s native son had an influence on Updike’s writing, O’Hara, to paraphrase an old saying of my grandfather, could not carry Updike’s pen.

Was he a perfect writer?  No.  For one thing, he himself admitted that one of his shortcomings was his ritualistic nonstop return to the topic of adultery in an enormous amount of his writings.  When in a particularly cynical mood, I would sometimes ask myself while reading a bit of Updike, “How many more pages before the central male character cheats on his wife and with whom?”  He was often chastised as a misogynist and I might find it challenging to defend his writing against that charge.

But what of the brilliance?  The point is, to slip into jazz terms, the man had chops.  To use another jazz phrase, he also knew how to “show his ass,” lingo for having the ability as well as the propensity to take long and particularly spectacular solos.  While the line may infer negativity, the difference between a great jazzman and merely the mock is whether one’s 20 minute solo held an audience’s interest or not.  In the case of Updike, it did.  Granted, as time passed he learned to be more frugal with such linguistic pyrotechnics, but nonetheless, no writer of my time was more able to create amazing sentence after amazing sentence, none cliche; rather, Updike had the ability to invent cliche, a rare feat indeed.  The man personally reintriduced the word “redux” back into the English language.  To use sports metaphor, he was like a young Michael Jordan, who had to have realized at a certian young age that he could simply score at will, that no man nor team could stop him, that he operated at a higher level and did not have to do it all, all of the time, but could deal out whatever was needed as it was needed as he saw fit.  This is what allowed Updike to be as accessable as he was, as opposed to his only true contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov.

I am reminded of his first Rabbit novel, Rabbit, Run, where he took what seemed like a hundred pages to describe a long nighttime car ride, never once using a modifying metaphor or phrase I had ever before read to describe such beaten-to-death subjects as darkness, loneliness, trees, roads, and the like.  Self-indulgent, yes, but mindblowingly impressive.

The Rabbit series was the cornerstone of his career, creating this character from just south of the coal region as his American Everyman and using him to give us the definitive fictional history of my lifetime, from the 1950’s to the present.  I find it most impressive that this central voice, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrum, was, in fact, more of a straight man to far more vivid and interesting side characters as the series progressed, yet the saga carried on stronger with each additional volume.  Even the last piece, Rabbit Remembered, managed to pull the reader in despite the total absence of the series’ eponymous character.

Of course, no talk of Updike is complete without mentioning his versatility.  He was a Harvard man, a self-made summa cum laude grad who went on to graduate studies not in creative writing, but in painting, and who has been lauded as a stellar poet as well as one of America’s greatest literary critics, the creator of a set of rules for literary criticism that is held as the gold standard, rules which, in this blog entry, I am unapologetically breaking with each keystroke.

Finally, there is that other venture he wandered into ever so slightly, if only to demonstrate that there was nothing he could not do with language.  His foray into sports reporting, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, chronicling Ted Williams’ last baseball game, remains the greatest piece of sports writing ever created.

The world is words is a little poorer today, yet Rabbit shall always be remembered, and this fan humbly bids Mr. Updike adieu.