A week before John Updike died, I had a long conversation with my book group buddy, Jennifer McCabe, about John Updike. Jenn runs TeamJenn, a virtual accounting department that offers all the accounting services you need without taking your third floor office space. But, when she’s not enhancing your business, she’s an incredible reader and an Updike groupie. So when John Updike died, the first person I thought of was her, and I asked her to write about her Updike journey. If you want tributes with publication dates, speaking history and education, they are all over the Internet, but Jenn tells us what it’s like to love an author for your entire adult life:
I am mad about John Updike. I never had the discipline to wait for a paperback when a new book came out. Several years ago, one of my like-minded fellow fanatics told me Updike was doing a reading/signing gig at the library downtown. There was never any doubt that we’d go and see him (in the middle of a work day like thieves sneaking into a museum). I was so twitterpated while we listened to him read to us that I almost cried. I felt so lucky to be in the same room with him, actually looking at his silver head, LISTENING to him while he read something he had written. My guy J.U…..right in front of me!!! It was overwhelming. He was wry, handsome, smart…and then he signed my book. I got back in my car, squeezed my fists tightly, and squealed. Only Mick Jagger has gotten a bigger reaction from me.
I am a big fan, even when a lot of my other bookish friends weren’t as crazy about him as I was. I think he got the short end of the stick simply because he was Grisham/Cornwall prolific, and also because he was living in the same world that Philip Roth moved in. For some reason John Updike (like my boyfriends Pat Conroy and John Irving) doesn’t get the same press. Harrumph.
When I beg my book groups to do an Updike series, I always lose the bid. I have to remind people he won the Pulitzer – twice. (Faulkner also won twice: fitting company.) Maybe those Rabbit books were too long ago, or maybe modern readers picked up the prize winners and didn’t start at the beginning of the series, so they never knew how good the reading was. I say “reading”, not writing, because I am a reader after all. So often we praise writers for their writing style – but I loved that Updike was a good read. He made me squirm in my seat as he described a particularly sordid sexual encounter. He made me hold my breath as a I read about the death of a child. He sucked me in.
I remember my Dad reading the Rabbit books, so Updike has a warm family, WASP, familiarity to me. Rabbit, like my Dad, was a high school sports star from a town in middle America. Rabbit, to me, is real and really American. He’s a car salesman (!) who ages, who marries, who suffers disappointments in his children and his wife. He ages, and the reader gets to know him, and to feel things with him as his life fades. There are Rabbit Angstroms around every corner where I come from.
The holidays always find me shopping to buy other people things they want. Inevitably, I end up a at a book store, and have to buy myself something too. Last Christmas, I went to a funky local book store, Equator Books in Venice, CA, that sells used, classic books and vinyl. I admit that I got waylaid briefly by the Jesus Christ Superstar brown album…but then I saw the first editions of the Rabbit books. I dropped the JCS vinyl like a hot potato and clutched the Updikes in speechless happiness. I had to go back home for more dough – but before I did that I asked the guy at the counter to hold them because – get this – I was so afraid someone else would see them and beat me to it.
RIP Johnny U. I’ll continue to beg my reading friends to dig you out of the back shelves.