Paul Greenberg

For those readers in the future -- there will be readers in the future, won't there? -- who wonder what it was like to be middle-class in the American mid-century, there'll be no substitute for John Updike.

Because of his painter's eye and perfect brush strokes. Because of his sensual delight in ordinary things, which let him show us how extraordinary they were. Perhaps not since Nabokov has there been a writer who so appreciated and apprehended the sheer, lush tastelessness of innocent Americana. Updike's fascination with his time and place and world -- a better word for it might be love -- was just plain irresistible.

John Updike did produce an awful lot of prose in his time, some of it awful. He'd decided early on that he was going to churn out a book a year -- in addition to the mountain of essays and reviews and autobiographical jottings and general ruminations he left behind when he died last week at 76. It's an occupational hazard, the tendency to write more out of habit than calling.

Writing behavior, the shrinks call it.

But when he was good, Updike was just about perfect, in the sense of being a perfect mirror of his time and also of something timeless. And hasn't that been the function of the novel since it succeeded the romance as the literature of the age?

His Rabbit tetralogy, especially "Rabbit, Run," captured not just the spirit of an American in his time, but of America in its. For in Rabbit Angstrom, high school basketball star and now son-in-law at a car dealership, the author drew his American Everyman at 26 -- or at least the 1960 American male version thereof.

Twenty-six used to be the age that marriage, job, fatherhood, maturity and just what's called life closes in like a vise, and the only recurrent thing the captive male can think to do is run, Rabbit, run.

The scene in which Rabbit's alcoholic wife, whom he's deserted again, accidentally drowns their baby girl has to be one of the most harrowing in modern American literature, and, unfortunately, one of the most unforgettable. It haunts some of us still. It is every young father's nightmare of responsibility failed and guilt made life-long. In short, it is the human condition presented in a definite, palpable time and place. A time and place full of Our Kind of People. Maybe that's why, for a certain generation and class, John Updike will always be Our Kind of Writer.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.