BECH AT BAY by John Updike
Kirkus Star


A Quasi-Novel
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More literary and amorous adventures enjoyed and endured by “the semi-obscure American author” previously celebrated in Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech is Back (1982) . Henry Bech—hands down, Updike’s happiest invention—might be called the temperamental obverse of his creator’s blue-collar everyman, “Rabbit” Angstrom (as well as an interesting analogue to Cynthia Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser). A Jewish novelist of minimal achievement (seven books in forty years, including “the Kerowacky” Travel Light and his putative magnum opus The Chosen), he’s an “author of prose haiku” (passim); a failed lover, husband, and father; and—in the current incarnation—an aging celebrity wrestling with the demands of his undiminished libido and flickering literary fame. Updike surveys what ought to be Henry Bech’s declining years in five related stories (parts of which appeared, inevitably, in The New Yorker). “Bech in Czech” recounts a “cultural visit” to Prague during which the 60ish author is both aroused and chagrined by the vigorous energies his embattled host country exhibits. “Bech Pleads Guilty” takes him to L.A. and a lawsuit provoked by his derogatory magazine article about a Hollywood agent. And the concluding “Bech and the Bounty of Sweden” finds the elderly reprobate possessed of both an infant daughter and—to the horror of a scandalized literary establishment—the Nobel Prize. These three—thinly plotted “stories” enlivened by inspired noodling—are easily outmatched by their longer counterparts: a hilarious account of their antihero’s tenure heading a moribund society of artists (“Bech Presides”); and the even better (brilliantly titled) “Bech Noir”: a literally murderous expansion of Henry’s realization “that the literary world was a battlefield—mined with hatred, rimmed with snipers”—and that he’s mad as hell and doesn’t have to take it anymore. Updike unbound—at his most frolicsome and funniest. His best novel, “quasi” or not, in years.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40368-X
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1998


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