This appreciation of John Updike’s 40-year literary career is remarkable for its concise, critical assessments of nearly every one of the writer’s 48 books.
Updike, next to Joyce Carol Oates, is probably our most prolific major living writer. He is still best-known for the tetralogy of novels chronicling the life of former high-school basketball star Harry Angstrom, which include Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest. Of these, only Rabbit, Run is widely taught at universities. Pritchard (Talking Back to Emily Dickinson, 1998) believes the academic and general public’s neglect of Updike’s collected works derives in part from a lack of identification with Updike’s self-proclaimed Pennsylvanian point of view and a lack of affinity with his middle-class treatment of strong social issues (such as religion, politics, and sex). As diverse as the American reading public is, this doesn’t seem awry, but Pritchard strives to demonstrate how the value of Updike’s work rests as much on the elasticity and consistently high quality of the writing as on Updike’s ability to ape the raw events of his own life and times and transform them into raw material for his fiction. Pritchard assesses three or four books per chapter, moving chronologically from The Carpentered Hen (Updike’s first) to Gertrude and Claudius (his latest). Though the assessment of Updike’s realistic “documentary” novels takes up the bulk of the book, a distinct chapter is given over to what Pritchard calls “extravagant fictions” (the novels The Coup, The Witches of Eastwick, Roger’s Version, and S), as well as one chapter for Updike’s life as a critic and reviewer, and another for his poetry and memoir. Only Updike’s forays into art criticism, sports commentary, and playwriting are overlooked.
Above all, this book should help those who haven’t read all of Updike’s work recognize his extraordinary ability and understand his unique contribution to 20th-century American literature.