Remembering John Updike
Tom Perrotta talks about the fellow novelist's impact on the literary world
March 18, 1932-Jan. 27, 2009
The first John Updike story I read was ”A&P.” Narrated by a teenage supermarket cashier named Sammy, it sounded like nothing else in my starchy high school anthology: ”In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread.” The story’s a sneaky gem, an apparently simple anecdote booby-trapped with complicated questions about sex and class, culminating in an act that is heroic and stupid at the same time. It was my introduction to a giant, a writer so alive on the page that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. Updike’s body of work is so prolific and varied that it can be daunting to get his achievement into focus. I’ll always think of him as the great chronicler of the Sexual Revolution, not just for the randy upscale suburbanites of Couples, but for working-class characters like Sammy in ”A&P” and Harry ”Rabbit” Angstrom, hero of the monumental four-novel cycle that began with Rabbit, Run in 1960. Harry was an Everyman who managed to embody small-town America in all its contradictions — he’s lustful and guilt-ridden, nostalgic and restless, small-minded and bigger-than-life, overstuffed and still wanting more. Like his creator, he won’t soon be forgotten.
Updike died of lung cancer in Danvers, Mass. Perrotta’s latest novel is The Abstinence Teacher.