So…I’ve never really liked much of John Updike’s writing. I haven’t read the better Rabbit Angstrom books — Rabbit Run, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit 3: Dream Warriors — which I suppose would be the stuff everyone likes. And yet I feel like I’ve read a lot of his writing: some embarrassingly tumid narcissistic-older-guy short fiction that snuck into the New Yorker by dint of his American Genius Emeritus status; some eclectic but dialed-out criticism, including a terrible review in the New Yorker of this totally pernicious book by Amity Shlaes that amounted to a lot of reminiscences about his childhood in the face of a book that seriously misrepresents the New Deal. Updike also wrote a lot of poems at the end of his life, too.
He wrote a lot of everything. And to my uncharitable eye, he represented the last dinosaurine relic of those phallobsessive postwar male writer dudes, forever finding new euphemisms for ejaculation and hastily tossing together new targets for those eruptions of curdled eloquence. Oh, look, I just made one up. It’s cool if you need to take a break here to vomit.
But with Updike’s death today at 76, after a losing battle with lung cancer, it’s worth remembering that there was some very good writing among his back catalog, and that not all of it was about humping. At Salon, King Kauffman sets the context for Updike’s canonic piece of baseball writing, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” appeared in the Oct. 22, 1960, New Yorker. It’s the story of Ted Williams’ last game. It was written partly in response to a column by Huck Finnegan in the Boston American that appeared on Sept. 28, the day of Williams’ valedictory, to use Updike’s word.
Finnegan had characterized Williams’ career as “a series of failures except for his averages,” noting that he hadn’t played well in the handful of games he’d appeared in in the postseason or on a season’s final day with a pennant on the line. Literally a handful: Finnegan was talking about nine games, plus a Red Sox flop following Williams’ return from an injury in late 1950.
“It has always been Williams’ records first, the team second, and the Sox non-winning record is proof enough of that,” Finnegan wrote. So the kind of nonsense typists type these days about Alex Rodriguez isn’t new, and is going to look just as silly five decades from now as Finnegan’s work does today.
But Updike didn’t need Finnegan. “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” he began, and we moderns have to remember that Fenway was not yet today’s obsessed-over jewel, its lyricality beaten to death on TV every night from April to October. It was just one of a bunch of 40- or 50-year-old little bandboxes doing duty in the bigs at the time.
Updike’s whole 6,000-word essay is here. I haven’t finished it — I needed to get this post up, so you dear readers could find out just how I feel about the late John Updike.
But from what I’ve read, which is probably just the first third or so, I think I’m starting to see what everyone else, for decades, saw in John Updike. I just finished it. It’s really, really good. Kind of orotund and over-the-top in that published-in-1960 sense, but really beautiful language and a surprising amount of empathy and warmth all-around. Great essay. Still not sure I want to read his novels, but it’s great.