Thursday, January 29, 2009
Let me start off with a confession: I have never read a John Updike novel. Despite this deficiency, he remains in my mind as one of the most, if not THE most, prolific literary writers of our time, standing shoulder to shoulder with Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth, giants of American literature.
Updike's "A & P" was the first short story we read in my freshman year composition class in college, and I still remember reading his description of Queenie, the pubescent temptress who slaps barefoot into the local A & P to change Sammy's life forever: "With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane on the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty." Sure, he was a classic "man's man" writer (just a paragraph before, Sammy wonders parenthetically if girls really have a brain or if it's "just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar"), but his deft use of language and tone more than made up for the often less-than-favorable portraits of females in his stories (taken with a grain of salt, as usual).
In my first grad school literature course, we read "Pigeon Feathers." I don't remember what other stories we read that week, but I do remember it was a decidedly more concise writer that our teacher contrasted with Updike's winding and dramatic story on God and the nature of mortality. I was the only one in the class who preferred Updike's style--I appreciated the lyricism of his language, and how he used it to illustrate larger issues that hulk in the corner of all of our minds.
I'm not the only one who remembers Updike fondly. For more remembrances of the author, check out these tributes:
The New York Times
Los Angeles Times
the New Yorker
the San Francisco Chronicle
the Chicago Tribune