01.27.09

Hub Fans, Everyone Else Bid Overgrown Kid Adieu: John Updike, RIP

Posted in Baseball, Dead Authors at 3:16 pm by

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.

6 Responses to “Hub Fans, Everyone Else Bid Overgrown Kid Adieu: John Updike, RIP”

  1. Is this a student essay? It’s not even funny. I hope the teacher gave the writer of this an F.

  2. David Roth says:

    Is this a student essay?

    No, AB, it’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” by the recently deceased John Updike. You have to pay attention.

    Unless you mean the post I wrote, which was an extra-credit assignment for the Learning Annex class on sports blogging I’m currently taking. I’m hoping not to get an F, obviously, but Mighty MJD is a notoriously strict grader.

  3. Pete Segall says:

    There was always something disconcerting about Updike’s output – the last time I was at the dentist I read a startlingly lovely piece he did on the landscape of Mars from National Geographic. As someone whose rate of production might be measured in epochs, I didn’t get it. This is a guy you couldn’t sneeze on a pile of New Yorkers without getting snot on his last dozen stories, and here he is on Mars. The Times obit by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt quotes Martin Amis to much better effect (“Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favorite color. No problem — but can they hang on? Mr. Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.”). When he was on, though – the first two Rabbit books, In the Beauty of the Lillies, The Centaur – he was as gifted a cataloguer of psyches as anyone this country has produced.

  4. blueslacker says:

    I don’t want to be a pill, but Updike didn’t necessarily sneak into The Beau and the Butterfly based on his reputation so much as he insinuated himself so deeply into the magazine’s culture during the William Shawn era that he just never went away. For whatever the New Yorker’s faults today, the Shawn era was an absolute debacle and it’s not too surprising that Updike took his place squarely in the middle of what would eventually become the world’s greatest menagerie of sneering mediocrities.

    Anyway, I agree with you that Updike could, if his life depended on it, turn a phrase, but I think you’re being a little too charitable to him, especially considering his views on Vietnam which amounted to “Well I don’t like it so much either but we have to support the President. So all you guys who aren’t famous writers or whatever just go over there and do your best not to die”.

  5. Jason Cohen says:

    The Shawn era was an absolute debacle? Or do you mean the Gottlieb era?

  6. blueslacker says:

    Ha ha, fair enough. “Debacle” was an imprecise word to describe Shawn’s era of middlebrow milquetoast and could be better applied to Gottlieb.

    A friend of my father’s had a sinecure at the New Yorker in the early 60s before moving on to other things, and I guess my impressions of that era are largely informed by anecdotes he told me when I was a kid. Maybe it was less horrifying than it sounded anyway–the lofty heights of the 1960s New Yorker are far removed in space and time from Wowee Zowee era Barrington Hills. But despite some of the very good fiction they published (Salinger, Nabokov with Edmund Wilson’s insistence, I liked Thurber well enough and he must be proud his grandson wrote the script to Dodgeball), by Updike’s own account, it was a “kind of club” that tended to ignore anything very new or different… Blah, the more I write, the less the Shawn era at the New Yorker sounds like a unique nuissance and the more it sounds like pretty much the whole publishing world, maybe even a little better than most, and the schmuckier I feel. McInerney made it all sound strangely charming, anyway.

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