The Frontal Cortex


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.


  1. #1 John Benbow
    January 27, 2009

    I too read “Pigeon Feathers” (nearly fifty years ago) and was deeply moved. What makes that passage (especially the throwaway final phrase) all the more poignant is that the “David” of the story was a fictional stand-in for Updike himself. John Updike was able to embrace belief and utter unbelief, God and no-God, hope and hopelessness, and express those eternal, infernal opposites in prose few of us could resist.

  2. #2 OftenWrongTed
    January 27, 2009

    “We take our bearings, daily, from others. To be sane is, to a great extent, to be sociable”.
    HUMANKIND by John Updike 1932 – 2009

  3. #3 jfrancis
    January 27, 2009

    Life and death
    pursue us
    with equal ferocity.

  4. #4 shannon Murphy
    January 28, 2009

    And look how beautiful he is:

  5. #5 jb
    January 28, 2009

    Every time I see a pigeon I always admire the iridescent colors around its neck. I had forgotten that it was the short story “Pigeon Feathers” and Updike that are responsible. I too had read this long ago and had forgotten the story and the author until now.
    Maybe that is the function of great art: to remind us to look more closely with all our senses. No matter how rivetting the printed word and how beautiful the messenger, how more magnificent is our direct experience of this ordinary world.
    Thank you John. Thank you Jonah.

  6. #6 d warren
    January 28, 2009

    Look at the young Jonah… then imagine a young Updike.
    when I opened the page I thought the pic was Updike. How is it that we know consciously that a bird’s feathers should never have dirt on them but for Updike’s flight of words … I must read his Rabitts now. My name after all is warren

  7. #7 Lee Pirozzi
    February 4, 2009

    I am painting a curious homage to his worded art – with many
    inuendos that might span all brains for interpretation.

    Two of my children write with fervor and the 10 year old
    illustrates the story more than the nine year old. The 10 year old was recently given – In School Suspension – for
    a failure to turn in some homework. He finished his overdue
    assignments in two hours and read 250 pages of a literary
    adventure book in the suspension class. When he came home – he looked at me and asked, “Mommy, I only had ten more pages left to read tofinish that book.” The irony of the ignored artists, still haunts our children. I cried, called the school counselor,and requested the book be loaned him so that he could read the end.

    I live to change this nonsense in the art world. Which comes first, the treatment that provokes us to escape into our imaginations as artists so young – thereby creating manic adult artists – was it genetically there, or did the
    surrounding insensitivity take a ride on our neuroplasticity to unfold our creative brains into their artistic fates. You know “The Artist’s Thalamic Life” painting. Look for the sequel to the painting, and thanks
    to our literary artists – for the books we devour as we
    find ourselves. Keep writing books, Jonah.

  8. #8 Rachael
    February 7, 2009

    When I read Updike stories, I feel overwhelmed by something that’s hard to define… perhaps, curiosity? Some writers aim to overwhelm a reader with an emotional state: the despair, the happiness, the tragedy of their main character. Reading John Updike just makes me want to keep reading, and reading, and reading. I do not find Rabbit a very likable person, yet somehow at the end of the book I love his character all the same.

    There’s not much else to say, except, John Updike touched many people.

  9. #9 Sandra Charlap
    March 1, 2009

    I have a lot to thank John Updike for. He turned me into a reader at the age of 55. Being dyslexic, reading has always been an arduous task, and I have spent most of my life avoiding it. After listening to Villages, I was inspired to read Rabbit, Run. I could not stop. I’m proud to say that three years later, I have read almost everything he’s written. Why I love his work is illusive, personal, and impossible to put into words, but my gratitude for his life long devotion to his art is not. Thank you Mr. Updike for your work that will live on.


  10. #10 Jan Hammerquist
    May 21, 2009

    Correct the “not” to “now” after “geometrical tides.”

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