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New biography explores the genius of John Updike

April 7, 2014 GMT

“Updike” (Harper), by Adam Begley

During his lifetime, John Updike was acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of his generation, the poet laureate of middle-class, small-town, Protestant America.

From the time he was a boy, submitting articles and drawings to school newspapers in his beloved hometown of Shillington, Pa., until his 2009 death at age 76, he produced an endless stream of short stories, novels, essays, poetry and criticism — more than 60 books in just over 50 years.

Now, after five years at work in the Updike archives, Adam Begley has written an indispensable guide to the man and his work. A former books editor at the New York Observer, Begley approaches his subject from the perspective of a literary critic, focusing mainly on biographical material that illuminates the work.

As Updike himself often acknowledged, his life was the basis for his fiction, and Begley carefully, decade by decade, documents the similarities, identifying in short stories from the late 1950s, for instance, the first glimmerings of adulterous feelings that Updike would famously explore in 1968′s “Couples.”

“The more Updike one reads, and the more one learns about his life, the more blatantly obvious it becomes that he was enthralled by the detail of his own experience,” Begley writes. Yet Updike’s fiction was not merely “the prose equivalent to a live webcam,” he adds. “He selected, he edited ... sharpening the blur of daily life so that meanings began to emerge.”

Updike called it his “relentless domestic realism,” and it reached its apogee in the four Rabbit novels about everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, each one set in a different decade against the backdrop of a changing America, from the 1950s through the ’80s.

Begley, whose father, the novelist Louis Begley, was a classmate of Updike’s at Harvard, is particularly well-suited for the job of Updike biographer. In the introduction, he recounts a family anecdote about the time that Updike visited his parents not long after he was born, saw the toddler in his baby chair, and showed off his lesser-known skills as a juggler. Young Adam laughed.

Over the decades Begley has remained a fan, yet his affection hasn’t blinded him to Updike’s shortcomings, including the oft-heard complaint that he objectified women. He sees Updike’s strengths and his weaknesses, and presents the full measure of the man in this engrossing and fair-minded book.