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John Updike 1932-2009

When a writer describes a moment or a feeling that the reader remembers for 30+ years, that writer has touched something inside that reader. John Updike was that writer for me.  From reading many of his obituaries, I realize he was that writer for many others.  In 1991, Nicholson Baker wrote U and I. In it, he explores his intellectual and emotional debt to Updike. I read that book the minute it came out to search for a reason for my own feelings.  Tom Junod, in Esquire magazine, begins his obituary of Updike: “I met my wife through John Updike”. (She was reading a copy of Rabbit Redux).  Junod describes Updike’s skill as distilling “the essence of a quicksilver moment”. 

Those quicksilver moments that I remembered for many years are what kept drawing me to Updike.  I have no idea which short story contains this scene:  parents are divorcing and, with the help of their children, are cleaning out the family home. Updike likened the tossing of board games with missing pieces to their family life. I don’t even know if the next memory is a poem (I think it is) or a short story:  a museum-goer happens upon a small classical statue in a display case.  He feels an attachment and thinks of it as his own private possession.  Since I read that, I often feel that way in museums. 

Years ago, Updike spoke and read at UWM.  He read a poem I was not familiar with so I wrote and asked him for a citation.  In return mail, I received one of his famous blue-edged postcards with a charming note and the information I needed. I didn’t know how famous those postcards were until I began reading the obituaries. 

I liked Updike’s short stories and poetry more than his novels.  Although, one can’t argue with two Pulitzers: Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990).  Still, I will always miss the joy I felt when the New Yorker published a new Updike story.

Marbeth Foley

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