John Updike died today. He was one of my favorite writers, although I didn’t fall in love with his work until I lived for a few years outside of America. It was then that I first read the complete Rabbit series, from “Rabbit, Run” to “Rabbit Remembered” and became rather obsessed with his short stories. In the dank dark of an Oxford winter, I repeated one of my favorite Updike lines to myself several times a day: “America is a conspiracy to make you happy.”
Perhaps more than any other writer, Updike’s sentences have a way of getting stuck in my consciousness, so that I think of his words when I look at the world. When I eat salted cashews, I think of the dying Rabbit, who would nibble the nuts and appreciate their “poisonous tang”. When I watch golf on television, I think of Rabbit hitting a perfect tee shot and turning to the pastor and saying “”That’s it!” When my wife and I finish a bottle of wine, but I want perhaps just one more sip, I think of the sad couple in the short story “Gesturing”, and the wife who wonders when a full bottle of wine stopped “being enough for two people anymore”. And when I look at a pigeon, especially the sad city pigeons that are missing a foot or have dirt on their feathers, I think of this paragraph, about a boy who’s about to bury the birds he just killed in the barn:
The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers not broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.