A sympathetic, full-meal-deal biography—life, literary works, reputation—of John Updike (1932–2009), who was considered by many to be the most talented of his generation.
Former New York Observer books editor Begley (Certitude: A Profusely Illustrated Guide to Blockheads and Bullheads, Past and Present, 2009, etc.) erects his formidable edifice on a sturdy foundation of research and convention. He interviewed the relevant relatives and friends, trod the ground in Pennsylvania (Updike’s state of birth and youth), Massachusetts and elsewhere, and read all the works of Updike’s most prolific career. Begley begins in Berks County, Pa., and shows us Updike’s town-and-country boyhood, a time filled with reading and drawing and observing. His father was a public school teacher (see Updike’s The Centaur); his mother, a homemaker and writer (she published in the New Yorker—like her son and grandson—and wrote novels). We see Updike’s stellar schoolboy academic record and his matriculation at Harvard, where he earned a spot on the Harvard Lampoon staff and where he displayed the astonishing work ethic, creativity and precocity that would—while still in his 20s—earn him a staff position on the New Yorker and a lifelong publishing relationship with Alfred A. Knopf. Begley also shows us how Updike repeatedly mined his own experiences, populating his fiction with people like those in his own social circle (including his wives and many lovers). Perhaps too frequently, the author summarizes and explicates numerous of his works (including Updike’s poems and essays) and throughout displays a patent admiration, even affection, for his subject. He suggests that Updike’s conservative social positions (on civil rights, on Vietnam) were sometimes born of a desire to be contrarian rather than of actual conviction.
Thorough, intelligent and respectful, but more bite would have released more of Updike’s blood.