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John Updike's Alter-Ego, Again

11:00 PM, Dec 13, 1998 • By MARGARET BOERNER
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Word after word, line after line, paragraph after paragraph, John Updike writes a seductively perfect prose. He seems as well never to have suffered writer's block. We have over fifty books from the man, delivered over forty years: a cornucopia of stories, novels, novellas, poems, essays, and book reviews. Updike must be the only American writer ever to combine such grace with such output, and he is easily the best American writer now alive.

Born in 1932, Updike sold his first story to the New Yorker in 1954, the same year he finished college at Harvard. Though he intended to be a cartoonist (and attended the Ruskin School at Oxford), he returned to the United States and became instead a staff writer for the New Yorker. But after two years he retired to New England -- where he has been writing, largely about the suburbs and small-town America, ever since.

The brilliant Rabbit, Run (1961) was published when he was only twenty-nine and marked him as a major American writer. Indeed, in his forties, Updike was told by some critics that he was a sure bet to win the Nobel Prize because he had created a character, "which no one does these days." The character is Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a small-town, lower-middle-class Pennsylvanian, who selfishly but gloriously believes "there's something out there that wants me to find it." Updike followed Rabbit through three more novels, written at ten-year intervals as the character grew older but hardly wiser: Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990) -- the last two both receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

Updike often revisits his characters. Over the years, for example, he traced the marital infidelities of the middle-class Richard and Joan Maples through a series of stories collected in the 1979 Too Far to Go. A frequent concern of Updike's is infidelity resulting from a deep yearning not to close off possibility; it was the theme of the bestselling Couples in 1968 and The Witches of Eastwick in 1984.

But Henry Bech -- a character that with his latest collection, Bech at Bay, Updike has now visited for the third time -- is unmarried and faces more problems with creativity than fidelity. Henry Bech was first seen in a 1966 story, "The Bulgarian Poetess." A much-anthologized account of an American writer's literary passion behind the Iron Curtain, it was written after Updike had received the National Book Award for The Centaur, been elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and lectured in an American-Soviet cultural exchange program.

Updike collected his first batch of stories about his writing alter-ego in 1970 with Bech, and returned to his character in 1982, winning his second Time magazine cover with Bech Is Back. Updike has insisted that Bech is a writer as "different" from himself as he "could make him and still connect with him." Thus, where Updike is a suburban, married father, Bech is an urban bachelor, ten years older than his creator. Where Updike is prolific, Bech is blocked. Where Updike is an all-American Protestant, Bech is an all-American Jew.

Not everyone finds the difference convincing. The novelist Cynthia Ozick once complained that Bech's Jewishness consists of being called Jewish by Updike, with a few Yiddish words thrown in. But, in fact, Updike's intent is not to convey the Jewish immigrant and religious experience. What he seems to be looking for in his secular, assimilated Jewish-American writer is a character with which to express the way in which many Americans feel themselves to be something-Americans: slightly hyphenated people who stand both entirely inside the culture and just a little bit outside -- which is not a bad definition of the job of a novelist. "More fervently than he was a Jew," we discover, "Bech was a writer, a literary man." Updike's Jewish novelist is the manifestation of a writer's sense of being inside/outside the social world he observes.

If, however, Bech really is as unlike Updike as Updike can still "connect with," then he can't connect a very long way. Updike's politics, like his character's, are unclear but certainly not radical (a liberal critic once sniffed that the only federal program Updike seems to support is the U.S. Mail). Bech is a middle-class writer from a poorish background. So is Updike. Bech is a middle-aged, cultivated white American male with an exquisite ear and eye for the way other people speak and behave. So is Updike. The difference is not that great.