John Updike is dead, at age 76 of lung cancer. (Terrible disease–that’s very sad.) I was never a huge fan of his, since all of the male protagonists in his short stories were very clearly based on Updike: they all seemed to be men who were from lower middle-class families in industrial Pennsylvania who managed to go to Harvard and live lives with bigger houses, better cars, and prettier wives and paramours than their fathers had. That story got old, fast, as did the creepy obsession with comparing the girlfriend’s or second wife’s body with the first wife’s body, or sex with the girlfriend or second wife to sex with the first wife. Women in Updike’s short stories, and in many of his novels, function like the cars and houses of the protagonists–they were merely reflections of the protagonist’s status.
I enjoyed two books of his—S. (1988) and Memories of the Ford Administration: a novel (1992), both of which were (probably not coincidentally) novels based in American history and literature. S. was a must-read for me, since it was an updated version of The Scarlet Letter. It was okay, but I never understood why the Hester-character would have had an affair with the Dimmesdale-character, who seemed extremely joyless and unattractive. (Upon reflection, I suppose the same criticism could be made of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original Dimmesdale! I guess my point is that there were lots of other options in the 1980s compared to the 1650s.)
The Updike novel I enjoyed the most was Memories of the Ford Administration. The main character is a junior college history professor who muses on his memories of the Gerald Ford administration–the Updikean world of upper middle-class 1970s suburbia and the protagonist’s extramarital affair at the time. Interleaved with the story of the 1970s is the protagonist’s still-unfinished biography of President James Buchanan (yes–that’s right, readers: Mr. Third-Worst!) It’s rather strange, but it works. If you liked The Ice Storm (either the novel or the movie), you’ll enjoy Memories of the Ford Administration, although Updike’s book is less grim. (The Ice Storm was a little too over the top for me.)