***A Revised version of this essay has been published by Burnside Writers’ Colletive, here.***
Last Saturday morning as my wife Stephanie and I were driving from our apartment in Beverly Farms to our favorite breakfast place in Manchester by the Sea, she broke the early morning quiet that had settled on us in the car to observe, “You look like you’re checking out old men.”
I turned to see if I had heard her right, and I had. And what’s worse, I knew exactly what she was getting at. She meant “checking out” in the same way that teenage boys go to the mall to “check out” girls. Or the way a girl might say to her friend, “That guy’s totally checking you out.” She definitely didn’t mean it like “checking out” books from the library.
But she’s right. It probably does look like I’m checking out old men. I’m aware of that even without her reminding me. Each morning as I drive through town my head turns in the direction of every white haired, well dressed older man who happens to be walking about. I can’t help it. John Updike lives less than a mile from our apartment and I want to meet him.
On that Saturday morning, though I was sure I didn’t need to, I reminded Steph, “I’m looking for Updike.”
“I know,” she said, “but it looks like you’re checking out old men.” She gave me a big, silly grin and went back to putting on her makeup in the visor mirror.
I first read John Updike when I was a freshman in high school. The often anthologized “A&P” was the story. I like to tell people that it is the story that made me want to write stories. It appealed to me then because it was immediately relatable. I was working at a grocery store, Johnny’s Foodmaster in Revere. And although I wasn’t a cashier as the main character in the story is, I did often use my bagging station as a perch from which to steal glimpses of the few young girls that would come in to pick up milk or eggs for their mothers. And I certainly shared the main characters’ tendency toward delusions of grandeur.
My appreciation for that story matured as I did, and it served as a gateway into the rest of Updike’s writing. I can very nearly trace decisions in my life that led toward my development as a writer to many of Updike’s stories and essays that I encountered over the years. I decided that short fiction was my genre of choice, for example, when I read “Leaves” from 1967’s The Music School. Later, after reading Hugging the Shore, first published in 1983, I turned my attention to non-fiction. Since those early days a plethora of other influences have arisen as I worked to find my own voice, but that initial connection to Updike’s writing remains.
It wasn’t until I was a sophomore at Gordon College that I learned of our geographic connection. There it was widely known that the same John Updike that we read in our literature anthologies was a neighbor of the college. It was also known that despite his close proximity, Mr. Updike would not be visiting Gordon anytime soon. The explanation however was less clear. There were rumors of a disagreement between a member of the faculty, or administration, and Updike. Whatever the reason, though we still read his stories in literature and creative writing courses, he would never be speaking in a classroom or at convocation. I don’t have any confirmation that this rumor is true aside from the fact that in my time at Gordon as a student, and now as an adjunct professor, John Updike has never visited campus.
Of course there are many other Updike stories floating around the North Shore of Boston. Another such account has a Gordon professor rear-ending John Updike’s car somewhere in Beverly. In the rendition I heard, an interesting conversation sprung up between them and they discussed writing over the exchanging of insurance information.
I have a friend of a friend who worked landscaping at the Updike home and actually saw his Pulitzer Prize and another friend who used to deliver pizzas to the Updike’s. The owner of Manchester’s used book store, Manchester by the Book, explained to me one day as I was browsing that every so often he has to drive over to Updike’s house to pick up the books that he chooses not to read of those that are sent to his house with the hope that he will review them. Even while workshopping this essay, a good friend and fellow writer prefaced his critique with a story about meeting Updike in The Book Shop, a small bookstore here in Beverly Farms. That’s the same shop from which my mother-in-law bought me a signed copy of Updike’s newest novel Terrorist; he apparently signs all of the hard cover editions of his books that they sell there.
And yet I’ve never seen him around town, let alone met him. From where I sit writing this I can look out my window across to the library where his name is inscribed above the windows among other literary Farms’ residents. I often peer out that same window down onto the street to see if happens to be window shopping below, but to no avail.
So why do I want so badly to meet John Updike? What would I say to him?
It’s not as if I’m an adoring fan who wants an autograph; anyway, as I mentioned, I already have one. I don’t necessarily have a manuscript that I’d like him to read. (Though I’m sure I could throw one together pretty quick, if asked.) I don’t want to approach John Updike as a fan, or an admirer, and I’m certainly not a colleague. I want to meet him as a skeptic; a young person who doesn’t quite believe that the writing life can actually be a life. I want to meet him as someone who knows plenty of books but very few authors. I want to know how the words that I have spent my young life storing inside me could have originated inside someone else, another human being.
When I sit down to write I have the sense that although I am alone physically, I am also in great company in that I am surrounded by a chorus of writers’ words rising up from everywhere, including from inside. I try to keep this connection before me at all times so that I don’t feel like I’m on my own island, writing my own thoughts, to be shared with no one beside me. But I need a physical reminder of this community as well. Therefore, scattered over my desk are my favorite books from the writers I rely on the most, always within arms’ reach should I need encouragement or inspiration or simply diversion.
But at some point a writer realizes that more community than this is necessary, that while the words still live inside the computer, on the white plain that is made to look like real, physical paper, they don’t actually exist yet. And it’s hard to make the connection between the words in the books around me, the physical books, and their origins, potentially on similar digital “paper.” Harder to imagine still is the connection between these words, existing in invisible space, the words between book covers, and the man or woman who has watched the process progress from bodiless words to physical pages. And I find it nearly impossible to connect the names on the spines of the books on the shelf next to me with the person pictured on the dust cover and just as hard to connect that two-dimensional person in black and white with the real, three-dimensional full color, living, breathing human being.
But I want to meet that human being. I want to know someone who knows that these words can actually become physical things. And I have come to believe that John Updike can help me make this connection. I believe this because I know that he too has struggled with this disconnect. In a short piece called “Updike and I” found in the last section of More Matters he concocts a monologue by “I” about the other, “Updike.” It is written in the model of Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “Borges and I” published in 1964. Updike’s piece is enlightening not only because it actually describes how “Updike and I,” both, react to meeting an admirer, but it illuminates the space between writer and real person. Even John Updike feels some disconnect between the writer of the same name. Even he can’t quite see how the person who spends time in front of the word processor can possibly be the same person who reads the newspaper with breakfast in the morning. It is as if the words that one takes in and the words that one sends out pass each other somewhere inside of a person but the two identities rarely meet.
Still, this small comfort, this modest assurance that even established authors question their relationship to their own writing and that of others comes from the same place it always has, words on a page. I know from reading Updike that he, the man, could never offer me that same comfort in person. He’d probably feel as awkward as I, eyes dashing to corners of the room falling on anything inanimate, anything safe. Because the inanimate objects, the heavy books, and the light ones too, are the things we trust the most, even when the living beings are what we want the books to help us understand.
So I’ll keep “checking out old men” as Steph calls it, on the streets and from the library. She doesn’t mind, she thinks it’s funny. And she wants me to meet John Updike too, though her reasons are more straightforward. She’s a painter; she knows the importance of bringing a subject to life, visually. And, perhaps more importantly, she knows it will make me happy. I’ll have a story to tell. And these reasons are enough for her. But for the rest of us I offer these sixteen hundred words, printed on physical paper, inanimate as they may be, as a means commiseration, of understanding.