Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Familiar Voice

Terry Gross devoted her entire broadcast on NPR's Fresh Air today to the late John Updike, running clips from three interviews from over the years. It was marvelous to hear Updikes voice again: cider-tart, slightly nasal, laconic and wise. Years ago I went to hear him read in a bookstore in San Francisco. The host store was not where I worked, and I had to hustle to get there in time for the reading. There were not many authors' readings for which I would have willingly illustrated that verb "hustle." But Updike was Updike; master of the New Yorker story & poem, essayist and reviewer for the New York Review of Books, the novelist most likely to represent his generation of American novelists -- that last, roughly, the word from Philip Roth. So I hustled. I was met at the door of the locally famously famous bookstore by a very large and enthusiastic crowd, packed to the walls and unwilling, nearly unable, to admit another single body. But I was young and slim then -- it was a phase -- and I slipped my way in, with many a bump and blush, and shamelessly pushed near the front. I was not yet a collector of autographs, so I was unencumbered by bags of backlist. There was no such thing as a seat. We all stood.

Updike was nowhere to be seen -- presumably kept in an office somewhere until called to the podium -- and the crowd was hot, restless, and already footsore. Some, it seemed, had been there for hours. But when a member of the bookstore's staff finally made his way to the podium, the place grew as quiet as church and a collective grin circled the room. Our host for the evening was a lanky, undistinguished youth with hair in his eyes and touching little whiskers. In other circumstances I might have found him rather precious. Before he spoke the crowd's great grin seemed to blind him a little. I will never forget the introduction he immediately began to read from one grubby index-card:

"Welcome to B____ Bookstore. We are... (mumble) tonight. Our guest, John Updike (applause) is a novelist and... (mumble, mumble, mumble) ... author of... (mumble) and... (mumble) and... (mumble.) Please welcome... (mumble.)"

And then our host shambled off. He did not wait for Mr. Updike to emerge from off, he did not look again into the now wide-eyed and much stunned crowd, he simply... left.

A minute passed. No Updike. The crowd, sensing that the responsibility for the evening's success had been handed off, quickly took up the honor of San Francisco, the reading public, and bookstores everywhere, and tentatively burst forth in welcoming cheers and applause. Perhaps sensing he was finally "on," Updike, unaccompanied and smiling rather shyly, finally walked to the podium, bowed slightly, looked off to where, presumably, the staff member may have gone, shrugged his high shoulders and said, " ----." Abashed, Mr. Updike then fiddled with the microphone, eventually turning it on.

"Thank you" he said, in that same smiling voice I heard today on the radio,"Thank you all for coming. And thank you, young man, for that humbling introduction."

I would defy you not to love John Updike at that moment.

It was, without exception, the worst introduction of an author I have ever heard, to this day. Updike sailed straight on. When his reading was over, he took a few questions, then, checking his watch, suggested that if anyone wanted a book signed, he supposed he ought to begin. Locating the table and chair behind him, he then signed and chatted with customers for roughly another hour. He was absolutely, dazzlingly charming.

If the boy from the bookstore reappeared, I don't remember him. One hopes he was subsequently beaten to death in the alley behind the store.

The voice of John Updike, particularly for me in his many essays on art and writing and new books, is not a voice I am likely ever to forget. It is a voice that will be sorely missed.

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