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R.I.P. John Updike

January 27, 2009 | 11:27 am


Literary lion John Updike has died. The 76-year-old's death has taken many by surprise; as recently as November, he was touring in support of his latest novel, "The Widows of Eastwick."

In Los Angeles, he appeared at UCLA, where he was interviewed by books editor David L. Ulin, who says:

I thought he was charming and self-deprecating, and before the interview we sat backstage and talked about baseball. I found him to be very down to earth, both as a person and in terms of the way he looked at his career. Most writers of his stature have a sense of themselves as somehow existing above the rest of us, but  Updike saw himself as a working writer even to the extent of decribing himself as a freelancer; and I found it deeply heartening that someone at his level of achievement still worried about keeping his name in print.

The author staked his claim on the literary landscape with 1960's "Rabbit, Run." The disaffected, philandering Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom captured both readers' and Updike's imaingations; he went on to write four other "Rabbit" books. But he didn't stop there; Updike wrote 27 novels, 13 short story collections, books of poetry, nonfiction and essays, at least one play and was recently still reviewing books for the New Yorker.

My memory of Updike is reading his story "A&P" in high school, in New England; I lived in a seaside town where we shopped at the A&P, so it had a sense of heightened reality. Last year, when I was teaching in Pittsburgh, I used the story in a lesson with my students about opening lines. I was thrilled to find that it resonated with them as much as it had with me, despite the gap of years, despite the story's unfamiliar brand names, despite the fact that the kids didn't even know that A&P was a grocery chain. That's a durability that authors can only hope for. And that's how I'll remember John Updike.

"In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits."

How will you remember him?

—Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Caleb Jones / Associated Press