John UpdikeÂ | Photo Â© New York Times
John Updike and family at home; Ipswich, Massachusetts,1966
Â© Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
At the Bennington Summer Writing Workshops we met circa 1984. I was in the trenches, running a fiction-writing workshop. Updike was a featured overnight guest of honor. For some reason, we hit it off at first handshake. “Call me John,” he said. At dinners and parties, when he had my ear, he talked to me about his dreams and golf. With dreams I could come early and stay late. Golf was over my head, even though I had caddied many years before for friends who were anything but serious golfers. Besides writing, golf was something John seemed to be something John Updike lived for. I’ll never forget the Friday night at The CafĂ©, the campus watering hole, where the workshop crowd would gather nightly to down beers and literally talk shop, Wyn Cooper, a poet who was editing Western Literary Review from Denver at the time, had gotten hold of a movie projector to show a reel of Super 8 footage he’d shot of his high school girlfriend: Madonna. He was about to sell it off for thousand of dollars. I remember how John and I hung out near the back of the smoky room, sticking close to the screen door in order to take in as much fresh outside air as we could. We had just watched images of Madonna climbing out of a swimming pool in a drenched bikini. Suddenly the camera closed to catch her stare into the lens with a smile. Lips parted, she let a shiny stream of egg white and yellow slither from her mouth to her chin, neck and onto her cleavage. With this, the reel reached its end. We could hear the last of the film flap as it disengaged from the take-up spool. Suddenly John Updike nudged and tugged me through the screen door out into the sweltering July night, crammed with crickets. “Al,” he said, “I have to ask you something.” “Yes, John, what?” “Just promise me you won’t laugh.” “I promise,” I said. Then, speaking in a low voice as he glanced around, John Updike asked: “Tell me, who is this Madonna?” My fondness for the guy grew. I had taught his short stories — “A&P” and “The Music School”Â — in literature classes. Later I would teach The Witches of Eastwick to let writing students learn from a master of graphic description, reminding them that Updike’s early training was in art school. Sundays he dressed and went to church.Â In his Rabbit novels, the writer lets us know how well he understood what seamy stuff the hungover and non-devout might be up to of a secular Sabbath morning. Listen to John Updike read himself on his audio-books. He is superb.
John Updike in Black and White: On his own bi-racial family (“A Letter to My Grandsons,” is a letter to his first two African American grandchildren–more such mixed-racial grandchildren would follow since two of his four children married in this manner)
Photo Â© Mandel Ngan