When it came to fathers and sons, Sigmund Freud only knew the half of it, perhaps even less than that. It is undeniably true that on their path to maturity sons have to murder their fathers (only a symbolic butchery in the best case scenarios). But the full gamut of filial emotions is much wider than the Oedipus complex. Our fathers appear to us first as gods, then in various successive disguises as heroes, mentors, friends, clowns, rivals, victims, and, perhaps finally, as remorseful memories. Mourning the slain father is also part of the Oedipus story.
John Updike was one of the towering and inescapable patriarchs of American literature, a writer so dauntingly skilled and so impossibly prolific that subsequent generations can only look back at him with resentful awe. When he was alive, the range of responses to Updike ran from knee-bending reverence to knife-wielding rage. While women writers felt free to either admire Updike’s stellar prose or dismiss him as a sexist old coot, male writers tended to have a more visceral reaction. For Ian McEwan, Updike was one of his “father figures.” Nicholson Baker’s U and I (1991), a deliciously creepy memoir of his obsession with Updike, is puckishly written but also frank in its sexual emulation. Baker saluted Updike’s erotic explicitness, hailing him as the first writer “to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose.”
The late and now-sainted David Foster Wallace was more brutally Oedipal. In a notorious and opinion-shaping 1997 review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time, Wallace railed against the elderly writer as a “phallocrat,” a “narcissist,” a “solipsist” and quoted the devastating judgment of a friend who memorably summed up Updike as “a penis with a thesaurus.” As with Baker, paternal sexuality is the key to Wallace’s response. Updike was the bard of suburban adultery, the definitive chronicler of bed-hopping among the barbeque set. Wallace looked at Updike with the disenchanted eyes of a son pondering his old man’s feckless skirt-chasing. “The children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so beautifully,” Wallace complained, “got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.”
Baker and Wallace should be seen as two vantage points of the same monument, both obsessed with Updike’s formidable generative member. “What a big dick Updike has!” Baker marveled. “What a big dick Updike is!” Wallace replied.
Adam Begley’s hefty new biography of Updike belongs to this history of conflicted sonly emotions, an attempt to thread a middle path between Baker’s abject worship and Wallace’s adolescent rebellion. As it happens, Begley, as an editor at the New York Observer, commissioned Wallace’s review, and in this book the biographer tries to make amends by complicating (although not wholly eradicating) the image of Updike as a self-absorbed sex addict.
Beyond the Wallace connection, Begley has a long history with Updike, one that predates the biographer’s birth: the man writing Updike’s life is as close to being Updike’s son as one can get without being able to pass a paternity test. Begley’s father, the lawyer-turned-novelist Louis Begley, was born a year after Updike and studied with Updike at Harvard in the early 1950s. In 1953, Updike married Mary Pennington; in 1956, Louis Begley married a woman with a name comically similar to Mary Pennington: Sally Higginson. Adam Begley was born in 1959, the same year as Updike’s second son Michael. As a family friend, Updike would drop by to entertain Louis Begley’s clan. According to family lore, Updike’s juggling provoked the first burst of laughter to fly from the lips of the baby Adam. The film About Schmidt, based on a Louis Begley novel, borrowed a central narrative device from Dear Alexandros, an obscure 1959 Updike short story. Louis Begley and Sally divorced in 1970, prefiguring the separation of Updike and Mary in 1974 (and their divorce in 1976). For ample reasons, the impact of family breakup on children is a major concern in Begley’s biography.
Begley repeatedly hammers at the point that Updike was an “autobiographical writer.” This is a half-truth or perhaps a quarter-truth. Updike had two major modes, the domestic and the exotic. As a domestic writer, he imagined hypothetical alter egos who owed much to his own experiences. The Updike who crafted fun-house mirrors of his own life is dominant in novels like The Centaur (1963) and Couples (1968), not to mention the stories set in Olinger, Penn., a or tracing the rocky marriage of Richard and Joan Maple. But Updike also had an adventurous side which took him to the imaginary African nation Kush, to Brazil, to medieval Denmark, and to the post-American future, among other far-flung locales.