Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Bouncing Balls. Family. (And Segregation.)

It wasn’t bleeding-edge journalism, I’ll grant you that, but it had heart and an unusual perspective. It was a sweet story, and I liked it in part because I’ve lived (some of) it. What sticks with me, sticks in my craw, I guess, gums up my mental gears, is the story behind this story-behind-the-story. I’m afraid that I understand this story a little too well, and I’d love to be proven wrong. But. The sports world is often a profoundly segregated one.

Chris Mack is the men’s basketball coach at Cincinnati’s Xavier University. The X is no Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas, not what UCLA once was – legend-spawning, dynastic power programs in the world of college hoops. They’re good, though, having gone to the Sweet 16 (notching two NCAA tournament wins) three times in the past six years, one of those under Mack. That is only the background to the charming tale told by Gregg Doyel in his on-line column, though. Unlike coaching gypsies – the most notable being the ever-restless Larry Brown, now coaching his 47th team – who flit from job to job, one step away from their next firing/opportunity, Mack may be at Xavier for awhile. He is intimately tied to this university (he played there) in his hometown, and for other reasons that the article makes clear. I love it, and had I had the clarity to focus my coaching ambitions more narrowly, more competitively, I hope I would have done it Mack’s way and had his good luck, too.

The upshot is, at any rate, that he isn’t going anywhere. (Three of his predecessors at Xavier used their success with the Musketeers as the launching pad to one of the Big Jobs.) He’s got kids, and he doesn’t want to let his high-profile, high-stress job eat him as it has swallowed, well, almost every guy who’s tried it at the feverishly workaholic level of a major-level head coach. So, when he’s not on court, recruiting, breaking down film, doing his local radio gig, gladhanding with boosters, or unable to sleep because his team can’t shoot free throws, Chris Mack coaches his third-grade daughter’s house league basketball team.

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(Never Forget. But.)

BLURT 11: We all remember on big anniversaries. ‘Never forget’ does ring less hollow when the horror is but a decade old. But few see 9-11 as the toxic symbol it is: the toxicity of privilege and resentment, the disease of disunity, the pathology of meaningful futures sought without meaningful changes in outlook or decadent practices.

“Those Animals Over There!”

There’s a curious new pastime being developed in Caledonia, Ontario. Every once in awhile, but mainly as the feature attraction of a long holiday weekend, two groups of people get together for a not-so-sporting competition. In other times and places, it might have been a game of lawn darts or horse shoes. To be thoroughly contemporary, it ought to be beach volleyball with lots of photogenic young bodies and extremely happy beverages. But nobody’s selling beer with these recent, bitter small-town scenes.

Another long weekend brought another long staredown between Caledonia citizens and their counterparts from the Six Nations reserve. (And on both sides, no doubt, were some “ringers” who don’t get enough front-line action! in their own communities.) The Aboriginal protesters insist they’ll be camped on that proposed subdivision until land claims negotiations are complete. Townsfolk are tired of having their sleepy ‘burbs disturbed. And now a judge is rattling the windows: Hey, I made a ruling. Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?

And another line has been crossed. Not that it hasn’t been muttered before. Not that it wasn’t probably among the verbal grenades lobbed on Monday, but I don’t think anyone in town had yet offered up such an Ideal Soundbite for Canadians to digest with their breakfast cereal. Something’s got to be done! is the essence of the cry from all sides. One good citizen of Caledonia, though, living too near the confrontation to stay entirely sane, has flavoured the stew with this morning’s radio rant about “those animals over there!” Oh, my. Those animals.

How many of these statements would our blustering friend (my former neighbour) agree with? Indians are not human beings. We should just round ‘em all up and throw them in the pound. (Er, jail.) I don’t care what they’re complaining about, I have the right to rising property values. I have the right to choose the kind of people I want for neighbours. I am proud that my children know how I feel about these freakin’ savages. I want something done NOW, and I don’t give a shit about the consequences…

He’s frustrated, and may already regret his words. It’s not an easy time for any of the players in this sad spectacle. I lived in that town for much of my life, and I’m no stranger to impatience. (Consider the ironies, though. The contenders — and I’ll say it again, there are many more sides than two there — all consider this a matter of the law. The contest is played out by people who had nothing to do with creating the centuries-old problem. And now the townsfolk are being made to endure just a taste – slowness, intractability, the feeling of one’s home under siege – of what Aboriginal people have known for decades upon generations…)

But the mutual taunting, the racial one-downsmanship, and the lust for battle that parts of the crowd demonstrate? The eagerness for any kind of satisfaction, no matter how trivial or temporary? It all forgets one essential thing. It’s what Mr. Lawrence, one of the wise old heads of the community, knows. He shook his head at the silly, scary playing of the long weekend Blame Game back in May, and told me this: We have to remember one thing. No matter what happens here, no matter how people behave, Caledonia and Six Nations are still going to be neighbours when this is over. In an ever-smaller world, so are we all.