Three years ago, John Updike and I were finalists for the NBCC prize in criticism, an improbable coincidence that pleased me no end." When a local newspaper called, I attempted humorous humility: "Hey, if I beat Updike, I'm the man; if he wins, I bet my ego can handle it; if we both lose, we finished in a dead heat, right?" We both lost. When a member of the deciding tribunal came up to me shaking his head, to tell me I hadn't won the prize, he said "But you and Updike were the stylists." This compliment, from even one professional critic, represents the zenith of my literary career.
I never met Updike. But he was never out of my sight, not from the first serious reading I attempted, when Eisenhower was president and Updike was the New Yorker's Boy Wonder. Readers like me could appreciate the fiction of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger and Bernard Malamud----no first-rate writer is parochial---but the urban Jewish experience that informed their voices was as alien to us as Paris or Buenos Aires. Updike was our guy, a literary celebrity from a part of the country I know very well, from a family much like mine. One farewell to Updike described him as an "old-school Harvard WASP," which is true in each of its terms but false in its aristocratic implications. Updike was a member of the rural meritocracy, one of those brilliant provincials that Harvard or Yale sometimes discover and nurtures, but most often overlooks. He was a hick like me, a boy who probably marched in Memorial Day parades in a Cub Scout uniform and remembered the World War I veterans in the vanguard, with their big stomachs and ancient rifles. The Centaur, still my favorite, was the proof of his kinship.
On occasion he seemed obsessed with sex, which never surprised his readers when our own hormones were still coming to a boil. Looking back, I suppose it was his reaction, as an artist and a man, to that same rural, pre-Sixties Protestant mindset. He was fascinated yet uncomfortable with the freeing up of human sexuality---like one of Marilynne Robinson's Mid-American clergymen, he wasn't quite sure where the Lord came into it all. I found this incredibly endearing, not because I was ever a more seasoned libertine than Updike but precisely because I wasn't, and could share his Puritan uneasiness about the thing we all think we want the most.
Updike was a product and protege of the smalltown priesthood of English teachers and librarians---a bibliophile underground with a passion for Art and Literature that's only intensified by its great distance from every center of cultural activity. Surrounded by philistines and illiterates, they keep a small torch burning and pass it on when they can, to the brightest local students or to promising children of their own. Every blue moon or two they might pass it to someone like John Updike, who could carry it so high and so far.