John Updike 1932–-
(Full name John Hoyer Updike) American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Updike's career through 1998. See also John Updike Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13.
One of the most critically respected and popular contemporary American authors, Updike is recognized as a brilliant prose stylist and keen social observer. Though best known for his award-winning quartet of Rabbit novels, Updike has amassed a large and ever-growing body of best-selling novels, acclaimed volumes of short stories, essays, and poetry since his arrival on the literary scene in the late 1950s. An incessant chronicler of post-war American mores and morals, Updike alternately finds humor, tragedy, and pathos in the small crises and quandaries of middle-class existence, particularly its sexual and religious hang-ups. His trademark fiction, largely informed by Christian theology, classical mythology, and popular culture, is distinguished for its broad erudition, wit, and descriptive opulence.
Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike was the only child of Wesley R. Updike, a high school mathematics teacher, and Linda G. Hoyer. At age thirteen he moved with his parents to a farmhouse outside of town where the newfound isolation encouraged him to convey his creative fantasies to paper in the form of stories and cartoons. Updike received a scholarship to attend Harvard University in 1950. There he majored in English, studied art, and served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, to which he contributed writings and illustrations. At Harvard, Updike also met Radcliffe undergraduate Mary Entwistle Pennington, whom he married in 1953; they divorced in 1977 and Updike married Martha Bernhard the same year. After graduating summa cum laude in 1954, Updike received a one-year Knox Fellowship to study art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. The next year he resettled in Manhattan and took a staff position with the New Yorker, which published his first professional story, “Friends from Philadelphia,” in 1954. Updike maintained a lifelong association with the New Yorker, within which his fiction, verse, and reviews have regularly appeared throughout his career. In 1957 he left the magazine and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to devote himself to full-time writing. He quickly established himself with his first three books—poetry in The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), short stories in The Same Door (1959), and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), winner of the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1959 and numerous major awards followed, including the National Book Award for The Centaur (1963), O. Henry awards for his short fiction, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for both Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Hugging the Shore (1983). Updike was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977, and was honored with the National Medal of the Arts in 1989.
Updike's distinct prose style, an essential feature of his fiction and discursive writings, is characterized by its vividly descriptive passages, carefully wrought in a striking, allusive, and often esoteric vocabulary that reveals the author's infatuation with language itself. Often placed within the realist tradition—a literary mode that favors precise, objective description of the real world over imaginative or idealized representations—much of Updike's fiction is presided over by a wry, intelligent authorial voice that conscientiously portrays the physical world and everyday life in lucid detail. Philosophically aligned with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich, Updike's fiction revolves primarily around the problem of faith and morality in the modern, post-Christian world, pointing toward the necessity of transcendental belief. In addition, many of his novels, short stories, and personal essays are largely autobiographical, drawing heavily upon his formative experiences in small-town, rural Pennsylvania. The author's hometown of Shillington serves as the model for the fictional town of Olinger, a recurring setting in the short stories of The Same Door, Pigeon Feathers (1962), and Olinger Stories (1964), as well as The Poorhouse Fair, a novel describing the circumstances of the elderly in a future welfare state. Updike's adolescence and relationship with his father forms the basis of The Centaur, a semi-autobiographic novel that parallels the mythological father-son relationship of Chirion and Prometheus. Likewise, his corresponding relationship with his mother is characterized in the novel Of the Farm (1965) and in the nostalgic short stories of The Afterlife and Other Stories (1994).
Rabbit, Run (1960), the first of Updike's Rabbit novels, introduces protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a former high school basketball star and quintessential average American man who wallows in ignominy and marital doldrums after graduation. His quasi-spiritual quest for self-fulfillment and meaning is acted out in his flight from wife, Janice, and his adulterous exploits, a futile gesture of resistance that ends with his return and the accidental drowning of their infant daughter. In Rabbit Redux (1971), a sequel set against events of the turbulent 1960s, Rabbit reappears ten years older and resigned to his marriage to Janice, with whom he now shares a son, Nelson. Incorporating Homeric themes, the novel centers upon their respective infidelities and Rabbit's involvement with a teenaged hippie girl and black Vietnam vet. Rabbit Is Rich, the third volume of the series, is set amid the energy crisis and consumer excesses of the 1970s. Finding himself middle-aged and undeservedly prosperous as the head of a Toyota car dealership he inherited from his father-in-law, Rabbit reflects upon his suburban contentment with Janice, though struggles to understand his simpering, college-aged son. In Rabbit at Rest, the final installment of the series, Rabbit golfs, ruins his heart with junk food and inactivity, and contemplates his imminent death while in semi-retirement during the Reagan-era 1980s. Together the Rabbit tetralogy documents four decades of post-war American social history during which, as Rabbit's experiences suggest, the nation has lost its moral direction and languishes in cynicism, indifference, and futility.
The domestic reality of suburban, middle-class American life is the focus of Problems and Other Stories (1979), the short stories of Trust Me (1987), and many Updike novels, including Couples (1968), A Month of Sundays (1975), Marry Me (1976), Roger's Version (1986), and S. (1988), a reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Each of these novels detail the marital tensions, sexual escapades, personal betrayals, professional disappointments, and spiritual crises that reflect changing attitudes about sexual behavior, relationships between men and women, and, most importantly, religious belief in contemporary society. The Witches of Eastwick (1984) addresses similar themes, but also incorporates elements of magic realism in its portrayal of three divorced New England witches who vie for the affections of a demonic dilettante. Updike has also taken up international settings and themes in several novels, such as The Coup (1978), which satirizes American and Third-World ideology through the perspective of an ousted leader of a fictitious African country, and Brazil (1994), a reinterpretation of the medieval Tristan and Isolde legend, in which an interracial pair of Brazilian lovers struggle against social prejudice in their native land. During the 1990s, Updike produced several additional novels: Memories of the Ford Administration (1992) involves a history professor whose ruminations on Ford-era politics revolve around recollection of his extramarital romps and research for a never-completed monograph about President James Buchanan; In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) chronicles four generations of the Wilmot family, from their turn-of-the-century New Jersey origins through their successive bouts with religious doubt, mediocrity, fame, and fanaticism; Toward the End of Time (1997), set in the early twenty-first century after a devastating nuclear war with China, involves a retired investment consultant who reflects upon his perverse pleasures, mortality, and nature in rural Massachusetts.
Updike has also chronicled the literary life of alter-ego Henry Bech, a fictitious Jewish-American author, in the short story collections Bech (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), and Bech at Bay (1998). These largely satirical stories describe Bech's perpetual battle against writer's block, hostile reviewers, the demands of celebrity, and changing currents in literary theory. The central themes of Updike's fiction also permeate his numerous volumes of poetry, including The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures, Telephone Poles and Other Poems (1963), Midpoint and Other Poems (1969), Tossing and Turning (1977), Facing Nature (1985), and his Collected Poems (1993). In the tradition of light verse, much of his poetry sparkles with humor, clever linguistic turns, and sophisticated witticisms. Updike's critical reviews and essays on a variety of personal, literary, and artistic topics are contained in Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore, Just Looking (1989), Odd Jobs (1991), and his memoir Self-Consciousness (1989).
Updike is widely regarded as one of the dominant American literary figures of the post-war era. The high quality and diversity of his formidable oeuvre is frequently cited as evidence of his superior literary gifts and intellect. As Margaret Atwood notes, “Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well.” Though recognized as a master of the short story, Updike's popular and critical reputation rests largely upon his accomplishment as a novelist. His Rabbit tetralogy is generally regarded as the centerpiece of his literary career, though the majority of his novels have won favorable reviews and a large readership. Critical evaluation of Updike's work often focuses on his inimitable prose style. While most commentators praise his rich description and language, drawing comparisons to the prose of Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, others negatively view this characteristic of his writing as a symptom of self-indulgence and superficiality. “The famous Updike style,” Jay Parini writes, is “fluent to a fault, rich in metaphor, rising to exquisite heights in places, toppling elsewhere into preciousness and affectation.” According to Joseph Epstein, “Updike simply cannot pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” Though Updike's affinity for descriptive language has prompted some critics to question the depth and seriousness of his concerns, others, such as John F. Fleischauer, suggest that Updike's employment of a dense vocabulary and syntax functions as a distancing technique to mediate the intellectual and emotional involvement of the reader. Many critics have also expressed objection to Updike's portrayal of women, viewed by some as specious and misogynistic; his graphic depictions of sexual activity, which have been faulted as gratuitous; and the grand historical and social backdrops of his fiction, considered by some an exploitative façade for the author's solipsistic concerns. Despite such criticism, Updike remains highly esteemed as a foremost man of letters whose prodigious intelligence, verbal prowess, and shrewd insight into the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life separate him from the ranks of his contemporaries.
The Carpenter Hen and Other Tame Creatures (poetry) 1958
The Poorhouse Fair (novel) 1959
The Same Door (short stories) 1959
Rabbit, Run (novel) 1960
Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
The Centaur (novel) 1963
Telephone Poles and Other Poems (poetry) 1963
Olinger Stories (short stories) 1964
Assorted Prose (essays) 1965
Of the Farm (novel) 1965
The Music School (short stories) 1966
Couples (novel) 1968
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SOURCE: “John Updike: Promises, Promises,” in Commentary, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 54–8.
[In the following essay, Epstein provides an overview of Updike's literary career, fiction, and critical assessment. According to Epstein, Updike's fiction is undermined by the author's preoccupation with prose style and the subject of sex.]
In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton speaks of the advantages of not being considered promising. It was better, she thought, at least in her own case, “to fight my way to expression through a thick fog of indifference.” Fighting his way through “a thick fog of indifference” has not quite been John...
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SOURCE: “Wicked Witches of the North,” in New Republic, June 4, 1984, pp. 28–9.
[In the following review, Godwin praises Updike's prose and wit in The Witches of Eastwick, but faults the novel for what she perceives as a lack of intellectual depth.]
Even in these “postmodern” times, the witch figure continues to excite us. Fully vested by centuries of residence in our psyches, she sallies forth with amazing vigor each time we re-imagine her. Though she assumes a variety of shapes, depending upon the needs and the bugaboos of the culture that summons her, she always brings with her the dread and fascinating certainty of change—and all the outcry and...
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SOURCE: “Bitches and Witches,” in Nation, June 23, 1984, pp. 773–75.
[In the following review, Pollitt strongly criticizes Updike's portrayal of women and contemporary gender stereotypes in The Witches of Eastwick.]
After one of my male friends praised The Witches of Eastwick for its uncanny understanding of what it feels like to be a woman, I promised myself I wouldn't review it. Life is short, after all, and I was sure reviewers would be lining up to pan this silly and patronizing fable of New England divorcées who find liberation in sorcery. So far, though, critics have been deferential, with women, interestingly, making some of the deepest salaams....
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SOURCE: “Love Bytes,” in New Republic, February 2, 1987, pp. 41–2.
[In the following review, Enright offers a positive assessment of Roger's Version.]
How clever John Updike is! And how vulgar he can be. That the two qualities manage to coexist, each in so high (or low) a degree, in the same writer, in the same book, passes understanding.
His new novel [Roger's Version] has it wholeheartedly both ways, being about God and Sex. The initial God material is promising, and to some extent delivers what it promises, as did The Witches of Eastwick in that novel's dealings with demonology. Roger Lambert, a professor in the School of...
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SOURCE: “Reading Updike,” in Nation, March 28, 1987, pp. 409–10.
[In the following review, Abbey gives a laudatory appraisal of Roger's Version.]
A professor of theology named Roger Lambert, subsiding comfortably into middle age, is aroused from his dogmatic slumbers by Dale Kohler, a young student of computer science. The year is 1984, the place Boston, and the subjects, always popular, are space, time, the Deity and failure. Why not? Boston has been a hotbed of Christianity since 1620; it is also the home of the Red Sox. In a world that consists essentially of nothing but patterns of organic energy (according to the new physics, now about 85 years old), the two...
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SOURCE: “The Witches of Updike,” in New Republic, June 20, 1988, pp. 39–41.
[In the following review, Gilman provides a negative evaluation of S.]
John Updike's fiction has always suffered under the whips and scorns of outraged feminists. They charge him with an inability to portray, or even to imagine, women in other than clichéd, male-oriented ways, however high-flown their expression. He doesn't like women, they say, and is incapable of “getting inside” a female mind. I think the accusation is pretty much on the mark and from my file pluck a couple of many possible pieces of evidence. From a story called “The Lifeguard”: “Women are an alien race of...
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SOURCE: “‘I Have Preened, I Have Lived,’” in New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, p. 7.
[In the following review, Donoghue offers a positive assessment of Self-Consciousness.]
When a memoir by a writer as well known as John Updike appears, it inevitably arouses curiosity. But this is not a tell-all autobiography. It consists of six discontinuous chapters: total recall is evidently not proposed. Mr. Updike's method is Lytton Strachey's in “Eminent Victorians” to intuit a life by taking samples of it, making forays into its hinterland and asking the reader to assume that gaps between the specified items could readily be filled by more of much the same...
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SOURCE: “Citizen Updike,” in New York Review of Books, May 18, 1989, pp. 3–4, 6, 8.
[In the following review, Hardwick provides an overview of Updike's fiction and thematic preoccupations, and praises Self-Consciousness.]
John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine's “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking one's own dictation. For this tall, and one wants to say still young, man, despite certain dwindling-days, September-song modulations in the composition of his...
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SOURCE: “John Updike's Prose Style: Definition at the Periphery of Meaning,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 277–90.
[In the following essay, Fleischauer examines the language and syntax of Updike's prose, particularly aspects of irony, symbolism, and literary detachment evoked in his use of descriptive vocabulary and imagery.]
John Updike has occupied a place near the center of the American literary scene for over twenty years. From the beginning, his works have attracted critical attention, most of it controversial, and at the heart of the commentary about Updike's prose has been a recognition of his distinctive...
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SOURCE: “Rabbit Is Rich as a Naturalistic Novel,” in American Literature, Vol. 61, No. 3, October, 1989, pp. 429–45.
[In the following essay, Lasseter examines elements of naturalism, literary realism, and deterministic philosophy in Rabbit Is Rich. According to Lasseter, “The theme of entropy which dominates Rabbit Is Rich can be understood in terms of the naturalistic trap. This is a novel about limits, energy crises, hostages, and death.”]
Throughout John Updike's “Rabbit” novels, Harry Angstrom makes striking economic progress. By most American standards, he has found success in Rabbit Is Rich. No longer feeling the need to...
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SOURCE: “Angst Up to the End,” in New Leader, October 1–15, 1990, pp. 21–2.
[In the following review, Searles offers a positive assessment of Rabbit at Rest.]
For sheer output and versatility, few writers can touch John Updike. Since his 1958 debut he has given us a play, four children's books, five collections of poetry, another five of essays—and, of course, the 24 volumes of superior fiction that have established his reputation as a major American author.
Updike's latest novel [Rabbit at Rest] completes a tetralogy about ex-basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, sometimes described as the Harvard-educated author's proletarian...
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SOURCE: “Fifty-five and Fading,” in New Statesman & Society, October 26, 1990, p. 33.
[In the following review, Quinn offers praise for Rabbit at Rest.]
The past 30 years of American life have been pretty crowded by any standards, and will presumably continue to disgorge their historians, their scourges and their apologists. There will be many a baggy social chronicle to pin it all down, though few will match either the intimacy or the eloquence of John Updike's Rabbit sequence.
Centring on the fortunes and foibles of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle American anti-hero and everyman, each novel put the seal on a decade's end—the...
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SOURCE: “‘The Adulterous Society’: John Updike's Marry Me,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 61–79.
[In the following essay, Leckie examines the social, literary, and philosophical significance of marriage and infidelity as presented in Marry Me.]
[F]iction is also a mode of spying; we read it as we look in windows or listen to gossip, to learn what other people do.
—John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces
The quintessentially private life that entered the novel … was, by its very nature and as opposed to public life,...
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SOURCE: “The Rabbit Tetralogy: From Solitude to Society to Solitude Again,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 5–24.
[In the following essay, Wilson examines elements of social drama, historical consciousness, and tension between the desire for isolation and integration in Updike's Rabbit tetralogy.]
Frederick R. Karl in his exhaustive survey of postwar American fiction has little to say about novel sequences because, he claims, in comparison to Britain, there is a “paucity of sequential novels” in America. Our “social expectations” and “our need for movement and escape” militate against novel sequences, which, of...
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SOURCE: “Magnanimous in a Big Way,” in New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, p. 12.
[In the following review, Amis offers a positive assessment of Odd Jobs.]
We often think in terms of literary pairs, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, etc. But what about literary opposites? Jorge Luis Borges versus Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholson Baker versus Leon Uris, Thomas Pynchon versus C. P. Snow, Norman Mailer versus Anita Brookner. John Updike has no obvious soul mate or near equivalent, unless it be Anthony Burgess, who boasts a similarly hyperactive cortex. But he does have an opposite, and a diametrical one Samuel Beckett.
Beckett was the headmaster...
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SOURCE: “Desire under the Palms,” in New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1994, pp. 1, 26–7.
[In the following review, Kingsolver offers a positive evaluation of Brazil, but objects to racial stereotypes and elements of misogyny in the book.]
Tristão and Isabel, the hero and heroine of John Updike's 16th novel, Brazil, never quite realize the epic valor of their name-sakes of medieval legend and Wagnerian drama. They mean well, but they just can't seem to resist silk shirts and kinky sex.
The knight-errant, Tristão is strutting the Copacabana beach in his shining armor of night-black skin when he first lays eyes on pale...
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SOURCE: “Off the Map,” in New York Review of Books, May 12, 1994, pp. 23–4.
[In the following review, Bayley offers a tempered evaluation of Brazil. “The hazards of the wilderness,” writes Bayley, “do not suit the genius of suburban America.”]
In the literary climate of postmodernism it seems not too difficult for a novelist skilled in his own trade, and knowledgeable in the history of the genre, to select an exotic country or unknown milieu, and write about it with conviction, and even with his own brand of authority. Fiction today does not recognize any predominance of truths; and it accepts an alien setting in the same spirit in which a social...
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SOURCE: “All His Wives Are Mother,” in New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Parini offers praise for The Afterlife and Other Stories.]
A writer as prolific and variously gifted as John Updike is bound, eventually, to frustrate readers. How does one absorb a body of work that includes 16 novels, 6 volumes of poetry, 5 fat compilations of essays and reviews, a memoir, a play, 4 books for children and now—after a pause of 7 years—his 11th collection of short stories? Were all this writing mediocre, one might still wonder at its mere volume. What is perhaps more striking is that so much of it is good, even dazzling....
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SOURCE: “Grand Illusion,” in New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Barnes offers a positive assessment of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]
Domestic and epic, intimiste and magisterial, In the Beauty of the Lilies begins with a sly misdirection. D. W. Griffith is filming “The Call to Arms” on the grounds of a mock-medieval castle in Paterson, N.J., in the spring of 1910. Mary Pickford, short of sleep and over-costumed for a hot day, faints. This scene takes two pages. But Griffith, Pickford and the Biograph Company never reappear in the novel, they are images raised to be wiped. Instead, cut to:
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SOURCE: “God Goes to the Movies,” in Nation, February 12, 1996, pp. 25–8.
[In the following review, Scott offers a positive evaluation of In the Beauty of the Lilies.]
The title of John Updike's seventeenth novel is foreshadowed in Self-Consciousness, the memoir he published a few years ago:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no...
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SOURCE: “Memento Mori—But First, Carpe Diem,” in New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1997, pp. 9–10.
[In the following review, Atwood offers praise for Toward the End of Time.]
Toward the End of Time is John Updike's 47th book, and it is deplorably good. If only he would write a flagrant bomb! That would be news. But another excellently written novel by an excellent novelist—what can be said? Surely no American writer has written so much, for so long, so consistently well. Such feats tend to be undervalued. They shouldn't be. Walking across Niagara Falls blindfolded on a tightrope for the 47th time is certainly as remarkable as having made it...
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SOURCE: “Deer John,” in Nation, November 3, 1997, pp. 62–3.
[In the following review, LeClair offers a positive assessment of Toward the End of Time.]
After putting Rabbit to rest, John Updike ranged far abroad in Brazil and drilled deep into history in Memories of the Ford Administration and In the Beauty of the Lilies. While these were adventurous novels, I think Updike missed his long-running index to the American present and decided that Rabbit's end was untimely. In Toward the End of Time, Updike replaces the once poor, finally rich and always sex-obsessed Rabbit with a similar character, Ben Turnbull. At 67, Turnbull has outlived...
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SOURCE: “Bullets of Milk,” in New Republic, November 17, 1997, pp. 38–42.
[In the following review, Boyers gives an unfavorable assessment of Toward the End of Time.]
John Updike's new novel [, Toward the End of Time,] is set in the year 2020, not long after a brief but devastating war in which millions of American and Chinese citizens were killed. We see none of this killing, and we are told nothing of the causes that led to the war or that brought it to a close. Occasional references are made to the resultant aftermath to a collapsed national economy and deteriorating office buildings, to a “depopulated” Midwest and abandoned neighborhoods; but we do...
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SOURCE: “Settling Old Scores,” in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1998, p. 7.
[In the following review, Shapiro offers a positive assessment of Bech at Bay.]
One's spirits, however initially well disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very little.
I didn't write that. An English critic named Raymond Featherwaite, who appears in “Bech Noir,” the wildest story in this volume [Bech at Bay], did. And John Updike sees to it that in revenge for this cursory dismissal of his alter...
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