Daniel D'Addario of Salon reports on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in The Book Reader.
A biography of any leading literary figure has a high bar to clear. It has to, at once, provide us interesting insights about a person's life, and be written in a sharp style worthy of its subject. And John Updike, the late Pulitzer-winning novelist, is well-served by Adam Begley's biography, simply titled "Updike."
The novelist, who died in 2009, was responsible for the late 20th century's most memorable saga with his four "Rabbit" novels, but Begley's portrait reveals Updike as a writer concerned with productivity over tempestuous artistry; at the beginning of his career, Updike was focused nearly to the point of obsession with producing work that met the standards of the New Yorker, which was the primary home for his short stories, poetry and criticism.
It wasn't all work for Updike. As Begley shows through sharp reporting, Updike led a tumultuous personal life, dithering over whether or not to leave his first wife and eventually taking up with the neighbor who became his second wife. This isn't a tabloid takedown, though. Updike's personal life is used to illustrate just how much inspiration he took from his life. Scenes of infidelity and marital discord from iconic novels like "Couples" and "Rabbit, Run" seem yet more compelling in light of Updike’s real-life turmoil.
Updike's life was one of remarkable productivity, but Begley respectfully refuses to pull his punches. Not all of the novels were successful, and many of them were informed by a set of political views that evolved over time. Updike’s female characters, for instance, became real people only the course of his full career, a process Begley sketches for us.
Looking at the fullness of Updike's career and speaking to his intimates, Begley has given us a work that helps us better understand the novelist and his times. It manages to get into the inner life and motivations of its subject as well as a great novel would.