Jon Busch

Getting Over Updike

John Updike was a living legend around Gordon College. He lived mere miles from our tiny campus, and swapping tales of “Updike sightings” was a common pastime among English majors.

Once, Updike visited the pizza shop where my old roommate, Dave, worked as a delivery guy. Dave returned to the apartment that night with a pizza box, opening it up to reveal the old man’s autograph scrawled on the inside lid.

My somewhat bolder friend, Jesse, chased Updike down on the streets of Beverly Farms and asked him if he and his wife would allow Jesse and his girlfriend to cook them dinner some time. The startled author stammered a polite decline and hastily hopped into the passenger seat of a vehicle that pulled up alongside them at that precise moment, as if the driver had instructions to pick him up as soon as any eager, gushing college kid accosted him.

Author John Updike.

The most shameless Updike encounter came from my creative writing teacher at Gordon, who spotted Updike driving and made a u-turn to follow him, sketchily, wherever the author might be headed. He tailed Updike all the way to Gloucester, where the drawbridge providentially opened and brought traffic to a standstill.

My teacher had always disagreed with another Gordon prof on the interpretation of a particular Updike story, so he took this opportunity to exit his vehicle, approach Updike’s car, and knock on the driver’s window. Updike hesitantly rolled it down, and patiently listened as my teacher gave a hasty summary of the opposing viewpoints.

“So who’s right?” he asked.

“You are,” Updike replied.

He told this story with an air of triumph and it only took a little wind out of his sails when I suggested that Updike probably thought it best not to argue with the crazy man who just approached his vehicle in traffic at the foot of a drawbridge.

Updike’s allure was amplified by the fact that he would never visit our college. For 30 years we had one of the most important authors of contemporary American literature living just up the road and yet no one could get him to come talk to us.

Legend has it (and I have no way to verify this) that an intrepid English professor in the late seventies or early eighties struck up a friendship with Updike and asked him to come speak on campus. Updike accepted the invitation, but had to be ‘disinvited’ when the president of the college famously declared, “I don’t want that pornographer anywhere near our campus.”

Decades later, an Updike convocation was still off the table. Apparently, the man knew how to hold a grudge. We English majors held a grudge as well, against that ignorant, foolish president who damned us to an Updike-less, and thus incomplete, education.

Only recently, having just finished Updike’s A Month of Sundays, did I have any sympathy for the old president’s position. I am not easily offended, but I found myself nearly blushing just reading the book in the presence of my wife’s family over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The narrator is a priest who, after being caught in several affairs with parishioners, has been banished to a sort of desert resort/rehab facility for fallen elders. He writes daily in a journal, describing his sexual encounters in lurid detail, shifting between lofty, spiritual language and crude vulgarities.

This goes on for 200 pages and, to be honest, it gets a little old. I felt like echoing the words of Krusty the Clown in an old Simpsons episode:  “Can it, Updike!”  Are you really this obsessed with sex? Is that what this entire book is about?

In those brief moments when the narrator turns his attention away from sex to the Gospel he has vowed to preach, Updike is capable of beautiful spiritual observations like this:

Our Lord produced miracles as naturally as the Earth produces flowers. Miracles fell from Him as drops of water escape between the fingers of a man drinking from his cupped hands. They came in spite of Himself; there is scarcely a one that was not coaxed out of Him – by His mother, by a disciple, by the hunger of a throng, by the unignorable beseeching of an invalid… [Miracles] are wrung from him, not from the strength of His Divinity, but from the weakness of His humanity.

But these passages are few and far between as the bulk of the book is devoted to reflections on the priest’s various adulteries. He writes, “A common fall, mine, into the abysmal perplexity of the American female. I feel, however, not merely fallen, but possessed.” One wonders if Updike, taking the time necessary to pen these passages, was similarly possessed.

As I read, I was unable to identify with Updike’s pervasive preoccupation and I wondered, if this novel were released today, would it be well-received or would it be dismissed as lewd, sexist, or just plain silly. My suspicion is that it would be a bit of all three.

While sex and infidelity are still common plot points in today’s literature, sex is rarely the sole focus of a book, and rarely lingered upon for more than a few paragraphs. As a premise, sexual exploration no longer seems to be enough. A character’s journey may include sexual encounters, but those journeys don’t often hinge on sex the way Updike’s do.

Evidence of this cultural shift might be found in the Literary Review’s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” whose stated purpose is to “draw attention to, and hopefully discourage, poorly written, redundant or crude passages of a sexual nature in fiction.” In 2008, John Updike was given their first Lifetime Achievement Award.

It’s possible that, like Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, A Month of Sundays was somehow revolutionary for the time, but has now been so often imitated that the original falls flat for the contemporary reader. Are we, as a culture, somewhat less obsessed with sex than we were in the 70’s? Or have we just been exposed to so much of it that we no longer find it shocking or interesting?

Regardless of the absurdity and vulgarity of A Month of Sundays, I do wish we Gordonites had not irrevocably offended Updike all those years ago. His “Seven Stanzas at Easter” alone is adequate atonement for a lifetime of bad sex writing.

You’re Probably Not An Outlier

My mother worked as a school teacher in Passaic, New Jersey.  She needed to be at school by 6:30 am, so she would drop my sister and me off at our grandparents’ house every morning for an hour before my grandmother would drive us to school. My grandparents were strict Dutch Reformed, that meant there was no TV, no radio, no books, or magazines to speak of.  Just a stack of blank 8.5 x 11 paper and a lot of pencils.

In the third grade I created a character called “Billy the Boarder” who I realize now was a knock-off of Bart Simpson (though I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons).  I started to draw Billy every morning at my grandmother’s dining room table.  Then I started creating little stories starring Billy.  Then entire comic books.  By the fourth grade I had my own quarterly magazine called “Cooked.”  It, too, was a knock-off, this time of “Cracked,” in which I would write and illustrate parodies of popular movies and television shows.  My mother would photocopy the magazine at her school and I would sell copies to my classmates for fifty cents.

Then I started developing various superheroes and fantasy characters: M.A.S.K. (mad about stopping krime) and Chronicles of the Warriors (think Groo meets Monty Python).  I even developed a superhero team consisting of the nine boys in my fifth grade class using our various attributes as superpowers (for example, Michael Osbourne was really skinny, so he became Two-Dimensional Man and I was tall for my age, so I became Giant Man).

I wrote for one hour every morning, 180 days each year, for six years.  That adds up to 1,080 hours.  I never really thought about this until I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Perhaps one of the strongest elements of American culture is the idea that if we just work hard enough, we have the opportunity to succeed at whatever we set our minds to. But in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell delivers a serious challenge to this ideal.  He argues that, yes, hard work is an obvious necessity for success, but that special opportunities and cultural legacies play a huge role in virtually every success story.

In the Opportunity section, Gladwell digs into different “success stories.” Prompted by questions like, “Why are a disproportionate number of professional hockey players born in January?” and “Isn’t it funny that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born just seven months apart?”, Gladwell uncovers unique opportunities and historic advantages that led to their success. Of course they had to work hard to take advantage of these opportunities, but someone with similar talent may have fallen through the cracks for lack of the same opportunities.

In the Legacy section, Gladwell looks into the influence of cultural legacy on success, walking a fine line between trend and stereotype. For example, I felt a little uncomfortable as he tried to explain why all the successful law firms in New York seem to have Jewish names. But as he dug deeper into the Jewish-American experience, going back several generations, Gladwell demonstrated how it was the racist exclusion of Jews from old-boy law firms that actually set up young Jewish lawyers for success during the rise of “hostile takeovers” among corporations during the 1970s.

“It’s interesting,” I said to my friend who had recommended the book, “how he shows the way all these really successful people had these special opportunities or unique circumstances that led to their success.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but it also kind of sucks because I’m thinking, ‘What if I’m not one of those people?'”

In one sense, the book can be depressing. You might wind up asking yourself, “What if I have the wrong background? What if I was born at the wrong time?” But in another sense, the book is encouraging.  Bill Gates, the Beatles, and professional hockey players all have one thing in common: 10,000 hours of practice.  Gladwell shows that statistically speaking, if you practice anything for 10,000 hours, regardless of your so-called “talent” in that field, you will be successful.

As a struggling writer, this is exciting – especially considering the 1,000-hour jump I’ve been given by having a mom who had to work early and a grandmother who believed watching television was a sin.


This article originally appeared on Patrol, an independent daily magazine where young writers explore their interactions with art, culture, politics, and religion.