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Updike: What kind of biography do you write when you are the closest thing to being John Updike’s son?

Adam Begley, who has written a biography of America’s foremost chronicler of sexual infidelity (seen here), was a playmate of John Updike’s children.


Adam Begley

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."

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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.

Even dealing with familiar territory, Updike consistently imagined characters who decidedly were not him. Harry Angstrom, the protagonist of the Rabbit novels, is like his creator a native of Pennsylvania but the fictional character has only slightly over half of Updike's IQ points and a completely different life trajectory. Yet Angstrom is as wholly plausible as any character in American fiction. To see Updike as primarily an "autobiographical writer" is to miss the crafty witchery that he put into even the fiction that was closest to his experiences.

Begley deftly recapitulates a story familiar to readers of Updike's memoir Self-Consciousness as well as novels like The Centaur: the swaddled childhood in small-town and rural Pennsylvania; the strong-willed mother with her own literary ambitions; the self-sacrificing father; the brightness and talent that opened the doors to Harvard and The New Yorker; the 1953 marriage while still an undergraduate to Mary; the four children (two sons and two daughters); the adulteries that both Mary and Updike indulged in as part of the swinging crowd of Ipswich, Mass.; the tormented love affair with Joyce Harrington that almost tore apart the marriage in 1962; the crazy sexual adventurism in the aftermath of that affair when Updike seems to have slept with nearly every housewife in Ipswich; the bestselling fame; the final dissolution of the marriage in the mid-1970s; the remarriage to his now-divorced former mistress Martha Bernhard; the lingering guilt over the impact of all this on his kids and stepkids (three sons from Martha's first marriage).

Begley's account of Updike's life is often shrewd but it is also severely damaged by misinterpretations and partisanship, a byproduct of who Begley talked to. He interviewed Updike's first wife Mary and their four kids but not the second wife Martha and the three stepsons from that relationship. As a result, Mary is presented as nurturing, maternal, shy, serene, and artistic as well as tolerant of Updike's creative and personal foibles. By contrast, Martha is depicted as an evil stepmother worthy of a fairytale rather than a biography.

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Although Begley provides a few softening caveats and provisos, the dominant narrative is that Martha was a predatory home-wrecker who had designs on Updike. Once Updike and Martha married, she allegedly became a controlling wife who isolated him in a remote mansion and sharply regulated his access to the children and grandchildren produced by his first marriage. Martha, Begley claims, "was perfectly willing to bully [Updike] for his own good." Begley strongly hints that the wife in Toward the End of Time (who he describes as a "fearsome nag" as well as "shrewish") is a likeness of Martha. The dubious gender politics of this account should be obvious.

Begley's sinister portrait of Martha is simplistic and rings false. Could it be that the biographer resents the second wife for not co-operating with his project? Begley's account almost completely erases Martha's sons (Updike's stepsons). In the book Updike in Cincinnati (2007), James Schiff has a small anecdote about how John Bernhard, Updike's stepson, made a visit to a literary reading and was greeted by the novelist with "a smile and a kiss." This throwaway remark in a book commemorating a small Updike conference is a more humanizing portrait of John Bernhard than he receives in Begley's massive biography.

Is Begley right in his claim that Updike was cut off from the lives of the grandchildren from his marriage to Mary? Three of those grandchildren are mixed-race (a daughter and a son from the first marriage both married black Africans). Updike's increasing sensitivity to issues of race and the special experience of mixed-race families, evident in novels like Brazil (1994) and Terrorist (2006), was surely connected to his grandfatherly interest in the non-white branch of his family tree. Updike had a long-standing and tangled history with race which Begley only sketchily covers and the experience of having dark-skinned grandkids changed the novelist in ways this biography doesn't contemplate.

Begley notes that "Oedipal struggle" is a recurring theme in the Rabbit books. Not just Oedipal struggle but unresolved anger towards an imperfect father figure is the major motive behind this flawed biography. The father can't be quite forgiven nor totally blamed for leaving the family, so the stepmother becomes the scapegoat.

We're never really finished with our parents, not even after their deaths. Begley's imperfect book is one attempt to wrestle with Updike's ghost, but there will be many more. One hopes those future biographies will deal more justly not just with Martha Updike but also the rich and complex patrimony Updike has bequeathed us.

Jeet Heer's next book, Sweet Lechery (featuring his selected cultural and political essays), will be released later this year.

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