UPDIKE. By Adam Begley. HarperCollins. 535 pages. $29.99.
Adam Begley writes of John Updike, the subject of his new biography: "He wasn't despairing or thwarted or resentful. He wasn't alienated or conflicted or drunk; he quarreled with no one. In short, he cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers. Even his neuroses were tame. Except for his psoriasis, his stutter, and his intermittent religious doubts, he faced no obstacle that hard work and natural talent couldn't overcome."
What is there to say about such an orderly occupant of the literary stage? Further, what is there to say that Updike hasn't already said better? In the Introduction to his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," Updike stakes a claim to his own story and records his dread of a biographer trespassing on his plot: "To take my life, my load of ore and heap of memories, from me!" He needn't have feared the theft. Begley has written a vigorous and intelligent book, one that he hopes will "mark the beginning of a surge in his reputation."
Readers of Updike know well the story of his happy childhood in Shillington, Penn. - the Olinger ("Oh, linger," as Begley points out) of his fiction. Imagine this: he grew up during the Depression in the house of a grandfather who was born during the American Civil War. His America is, he says in a late essay, "a semi-rural one where the telephone and the movies are the latest thing, and Jack Benny and Benny Goodman dominate the airwaves."
The only child in a household of four adults, his parents and his maternal grandparents, Updike learned early to listen and bear witness to the family's witty self-mythologizing. And he became the greatest self-mythologizer of them all.
In Shillington, Updike found the template for everything he would later encounter in the larger world. Less than a month before he died, he commemorated the friends of his childhood: "Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you / scant hundred of you, for providing a / sufficiency of human types: beauty, / bully, hanger-on, / twin and fatso, all a writer needs, / All there in Shillington."
At the end of his life, Updike proposed that "we meet our heaven at the start." Clearly, he was always destined to leave paradise behind. Begley supplies the kind of delicious detail that distinguishes his book: Updike's mother, a writer herself, scanned the biographies of writers in her short story anthologies, keeping a running tally of their alma maters. Harvard won, and it was to Harvard her son flew.
Updike, famously, liked middles (wanting, he said, to "give the mundane its beautiful due"), but he was also searching for a cure to mediocrity. Begley brilliantly tunes himself to the contradictions of a man who longed to blend in at the same time that he wanted to stand out as special. The doubleness stretched to his subject matter. His "domestic realism" called him to serve up versions of himself and everyone he knew - both a loving and a merciless project.
While his parents had "an un-middle-class appetite for the jubilant horrible truth" and didn't mind being exposed in their son's fiction, others weren't so sanguine. Begley makes excellent work of distinguishing the factual Updike from his many fictional avatars. He portrays - and doesn't discredit - Updike's public persona: the twinkly man of letters, easily erudite and affable, whose energy and facility drove him to produce more than 60 books and all the rest. But he also roots out other markers of Updike's genius, especially a serious contrarian streak, eternally in friction with the desire to belong.
Updike seems always to have known what he wanted, professionally. The summer after he graduated from Harvard, he realized one dream: his first story was accepted by the New Yorker ("I loved the magazine so much I concentrated all my wishing into an effort to make myself small and inky and intense enough to be received into its pages"). At 23, he was on staff. Within two years, fearing he would become an "elegant hack," he had moved on to Ipswitch, Mass., "Shillington redux," according to Begley.
Swathed in a community, with all its rituals and obligations, Updike was both a dutiful citizen/family man and a freewheeling rebel. When Begley interviewed his Shillington friends, they remembered Updike as an "early flower child." In Ipswich, he sampled the opportunities of "the post-pill paradise" and became famous for writing about it.
As his literary reputation exploded ("Couples" would make him a wealthy man), Updike's family life imploded. Begley is relatively discreet with this juicy material. The upshot was that Updike divorced one wife, Mary, and married another, Martha, who had been a late addition to their Ipswich crowd. A far more important upshot, for lovers of Updike, is that John and Mary live on in the fantastic Maples stories as two innocents who head hand-in-hand, like Hansel and Gretel, into danger and lose the way back.
Begley loses the trail a bit with the arrival of Martha Bernhard Updike. Mary and the children of his first marriage cooperated with the biographer, but Martha, who controls Updike's copyrights, notably did not. Still, "Updike" is a warm and illuminating book that honors its subject with the kind of truthful accounting he prized. As his mother once told an interviewer, "Someone has to tell the truth. I'd just as soon it were John."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.