John Updike writes much, and what he writes he writes exceptionally well. The nonfiction collected in ODD JOBS shows exactly how well. In this book Updike includes a half-dozen personal essays, several pieces of literary criticism, a number of personal reminiscences, and reviews of more than 140 books, both fiction and nonfiction—all written during the 1980’s, a decade during whcih he also completed several novels, dozens of short stories, and a book of memoirs.
Clearly that which is sure to impress the reader of ODD JOBS is the assemblage of reviews and commentary on other writers. During the 1980’s Updike reviewed or introduced books by American and foreign writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and scores of others. His observations on their work provide a kind of literary history of the decade.
Though these reviews are a literary journalism, Updike is concerned not simply with plot summary and cursory evaluation, but rather with showing how each work under review fits within the author’s canon and in the literary tradition. The repetitiveness of reviews may generate a sense of monotony, since they begin to sound formulaic after a while; but one must remember that they first appeared in disparate publication, and over several years. Further, read together with the lengthy critical analyses of authors such as William Dean Howells and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the introductions to volumes by Franz Kafka, John O’Hara, Graham Greene, and others, these reviews reveal a great deal about Updikes’s own artistic vision and offer insight into his beliefs about the function and future of the novel.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 1, 1991, p. 202.
Boston Globe. October 27, 1991, p. 15.
Chicago Tribune. November 7, 1991, V, p. 3.
The Houston Post. November 17, 1991, p. C4.
Library Journal. CXVI, September, 1991, p. 192.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 10, 1991, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 20, 1991, p. 115.
The Wall Street Journal. November 21, 1991, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, November 17, 1991, p. 5.
Washington Times. November 3, 1991, p. B8.