I was stunned this morning to learn about the death of John Updike. The news came sort of by accident (although I would have found out sometime later today), as I was flipping through today's newspaper. As varied and respected as his life's bibliography has been, I have not read any of his novels, and therefore cannot claim to be a fan of his, at least not yet. A few of his books have been on my reading list for quite some time, and I can only imagine that his passing will lead to a renewed interest and study of his work. However, I do consider myself an admirer of his writing, simply based on the two brief essays that I'm familiar with at this time.
This admiration stems from Updike's prolific work as not just a novelist, but as an essayist, a specialty that I've been fond of for awhile. The first passage came to me as a teenager, when I read Baseball: An Illustrated History, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. In the book, they reprinted Updike's account of being a spectator for Ted Williams's final home run at Fenway Park in Boston. The passage is beautiful, combining journalistic reporting with an atmosphere of unrepeatable history. The final line is utterly beautiful in describing the refusal by Williams to give a curtain call following the home run, despite the massive, pleading cheers from the Boston fans. Even as a teenager, long before my interest and studies of writing, I felt that the line was evidence of a great talent:
"Gods do not answer letters."
Just last week, I read "Extreme Dinosaurs," a contribution to National Geographic Magazine, reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. Updike described various species of dinosaur, with intricate phyical descriptions and ruminations on their evolutionary traits and benefits. As with the baseball essay, he combined reporting with another intangible quality. What made "Extreme Dinosaurs" so compelling was his fascination with the subject. It's not often that a man in his seventies can write a provoking, intelligent article with a childlike enthusiasm for dinosaurs. It's also not often that a writer's skill can be evident in only a few pages of reading, but that's my view of John Updike. I can only assume that my future readings of his fiction will assert that notion, as well as adding new facets to my current (albeit minimal) knowledge of his style. Since "Extreme Dinosaurs" is so fresh in my head, the mental image I have is of an established writer who has seen everything and has nothing left to prove. However, even in old age, he has not lost any spirit, freshness, or passion. I cannot think of a better compliment.