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John Updike 1932-2009

Novelist


I may not be a groupie, but I am a loyal and devoted fan.

From his earliest writing, I was stirred, amazed, and dazzled by the virtuosity of John Updike. He was a contemporary of mine and I identified with his too being an only child and having grown up in a small town.

After many years of admiration for John Updike’s abundant creativity, I took the bold step and wrote him a note expressing my pleasure with his memoir, Self-Consciousness. To my astonishment, he promptly replied, using a dirty-keyed old fashioned typewriter: “I am happy you found so much to recognize in Self-Consciousness; our generation, which tended to slip between wars and cultural upheavals, still has a story to tell and a song to sing.” He then told me about his high school and how his town had changed.

For several years, when particularly impressed by something he had written-and what a prolific writer he was-I would write a short note. I even brought to his attention that he had misspelled an old movie star’s name.

In 2007, Updike published a poem upon the death of singer Frankie Laine. I wrote him an anecdote about Frankie Laine, to which he replied: “: And thanks for your kind words. When I saw his obit, and realized that he had been alive all these years of my life, I wanted to write a poem, and worked at it, and the New York Review, to my surprise, wanted to print it.”

In 2008, I was moved by a poignant New Yorker story. He wrote back (in longhand, on a postcard): “Dear Mrs. Baragona: I’m sorry I made you cry. I didn’t mean to. But I’m glad you told me. Thanks for writing, and for crying.”

Other postcards expressed concerns about me, recommended the work of poet L.E. Sissman, and were always most gracious.

I could not answer if asked for my personal favorites. His poetry was a delight, his children’s books whimsical, his book reviews astute, and his sketches showed great artistic talent. Even books and stories not critically acclaimed had gems of sparkling writing and witty and ironic truths.

I am still overwhelmed with his rare insights, versatility, and fabulous command of the English language.

His last novel, The Widows of Eastwick, captivated me with his portrayal of how women act and think. In my note, I fantasized that he had modeled the character of Alexandra after me, as I identified so closely. When I did not get a quick reply I should have sensed that something was wrong, but I thought perhaps he had fled Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, during this year’s bleak winter.

Unlike Philip Roth, who was long preoccupied by death, Updike was all too aware of the vagaries of old age, which he graphically addressed in many stories. Perhaps he did foresee his mortality, as this poem suggests.

Requiem

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“O, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise-depths unplumbable!”

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

(To be published in September 2009, in a collection Updike recently submitted to Knopf, his publisher, called ENDPOINT and Other Poems.)

I treasure my correspondence from this talented man (writer of 50 novels, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) and how thoughtful and generous he was to this fan.



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