John Updike’s fictional antihero, Henry Bech, could not be more different from his creator. A self-confessed composite of Norman Mailer and J.D. Salinger, he cannot help but flatter himself. In this ‘foreword’ Updike presents us with a conceited and satirical manifestation of what it means to be an American and a writer.
In John Updike’s second collection of assorted prose he comes into his own as a book reviewer; most of the pieces picked up here were first published in The New Yorker in the 1960s and early ’70s. If one word could sum up the young critic’s approach to books and their authors it would be ‘;generosity’: ‘;Better to praise and share,’ he says in his Foreword, ‘;than to blame and ban.’ And so he follows his enthusiasms, which prove both deserving and infectious: Kierkegaard, Proust, Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Hamsun among the classics; Borges, Nabokov, Grass, Bellow, Cheever, and Jong among the contemporaries. Here too are meditations on Satan and cemeteries, travel essays on London and Anguilla, three very early ‘;golf dreams,’ and one big interview. Picked-Up Pieces is a glittering treasury for every reader who likes life, books, witand John Updike.
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD ‘;Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,’ writes John Updike in his Foreword to this collection of literary considerations. But the sailor doth protest too much: This collection begins somewhere near deep water, with a flotilla of short fiction, humor pieces, and personal essays, and even the least of the reviews herethose that ‘;come about and draw even closer to the land with another nine-point quotation’are distinguished by a novelist’s style, insight, and accuracy, not just surface sparkle. Indeed, as James Atlas commented, the most substantial critical articles, on Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman, go out as far as Updike’s fiction: They are ‘;the sort of ambitious scholarly reappraisal not seen in this country since the death of Edmund Wilson.’ With Hugging the Shore, Michiko Kakutani wrote, Updike established himself ‘;as a major and enduring critical voice; indeed, as the pre-eminent critic of his generation.’
To complement his work as a fiction writer, John Updike accepted any number of odd jobsbook reviews and introductions, speeches and tributes, a ‘;few paragraphs’ on baseball or beauty or Borgesand saw each as ‘;an opportunity to learn something, or to extract from within some unsuspected wisdom.’ In this, his largest collection of assorted prose, he brings generosity and insight to the works and lives of William Dean Howells, George Bernard Shaw, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and dozens more. Novels from outposts of postmodernism like Turkey, Albania, Israel, and Nigeria are reviewed, as are biographies of Cleopatra and Dorothy Parker. The more than a hundred considerations of books are flanked, on one side, by short stories, a playlet, and personal essays, and, on the other, by essays on his own oeuvre. Updike’s odd jobs would be any other writer’s chief work.
The theme of trust, betrayed or fulfilled, runs through this collection of short stories: Parents lead children into peril, husbands abandon wives, wives manipulate husbands, and time undermines all. Love pangs, a favorite subject of the author, take on a new urgency as earthquakes, illnesses, lost wallets, and deaths of distant friends besiege his aging heroes and heroines. One man loves his wife’s twin, and several men love the imagined bliss of their pasts; one woman takes an impotent lover, and another must administer her father’s death. Bourgeois comforts and youthful convictions are tenderly seen as certain to erode: ‘;Man,’ as one of these stories concludes, ‘;was not meant to abide in paradise.’
‘;The Maples stories trace the decline and fall of a marriage,’ writes the author in his Foreword, a marriage that is threatened early on by the temptations of infidelity (‘;Snowing in Greenwich Village’) and that ends in a midlife divorce (‘;Here Come the Maples’). ‘;They also illumine a history in many ways happy, of growing children and a million mundane moments shared.’ That all blessings are mixed and fleeting does not make them less real, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds. ‘;A tribe segregated in a valley develops an accent, then a dialect, and then a language all its own; so does a couple. Let this collection preserve one particular dead tongue, no easier to parse than Latin.’
John Updike’s first collection of nonfiction pieces, published in 1965 when the author was thirty-three, is a diverting and illuminating gambol through midcentury America and the writer’s youth. It opens with a choice selection of parodies, casuals, and’;Talk of the Town’ reports, the fruits of Updike’s boyish ambition to follow in the footsteps of Thurber and White. These jeux d’esprit are followed by ‘;Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’ an immortal account of Ted Williams’s last at-bat in Fenway Park; ‘;The Dogwood Tree,’ a Wordsworthian evocation of one Pennsylvania childhood; and five autobiographical essays and stories. Rounding out the volume are classic considerations of Nabokov, Salinger, Spark, Beckett, and others, the earliest efforts of the book reviewer who would go on to become, in The New York Times’s estimation, ‘;the pre-eminent critic of his generation.’ Updike called this collection ‘;motley but not unshapely.’ Some would call it a classic of its kind.
The title of John Updike’s first short story collection, published when the author was twenty-seven, alludes to the old superstition that you should enter and leave a house by the same door. Thus John Nordholm, the alternately shy and brash hero of the first story here, is also the narrator of the last. Yet there is a sense in which all sixteen of these stories knock at the same door, a door that in ‘;Dentistry and Doubt’ swings open, and in ‘;Toward Evening’ remains shut. The characters are polite, nervous, diffident, as if lifeor at least youth, for they are all youngwere a discomfiting wait in the anteroom of the absolute. The majority of these stories depict encounters between strangers and their unexpected effects, which can be as concrete as a roomful of flowers or a bottle of wine, or as intangible as a miracle or a dream.
In this midcareer collection of twenty-three short stories, John Updike tackles such problems as separation, divorce, and remarriage, parents and children, guns and prostitution, leprosy, swooning, suffocation, and guilt. His self-seeking heroes tend to be forty; his heroines are asleep, seductive, longing, or reproachful. None of these characters is innocent, and all are looking vainly for the road back to an imagined Paradise. Pain and comedy closely coexist in this mainly domestic world of the 1970s, where life is indistinguishable from a television commercial (but what is it advertising?) and every morning’s paper brings news of lost Atlantises.
When this classic collection of stories first appearedin 1962, on the author’s thirtieth birthdayArthur Mizener wrote in The New York Times Book Review: ‘;Updike is a romantic [and] like all American romantics, that is, he has an irresistible impulse to go in memory home again in order to find himself. . . . The precise recollection of his own family-love, parental and marital, is vital to him; it is the matter in which the saving truth is incarnate. . . . Pigeon Feathers is not just a book of very brilliant short stories; it is a demonstration of how the most gifted writer of his generation is coming to maturity; it shows us that Mr. Updike’s fine verbal talent is no longer pirouetting, however gracefully, out of a simple delight in motion, but is beginning to serve his deepest insight.’