Last thoughts on John Updike


At night I ride the D or N train (never the waddling, decrepit R) from midtown to 36th street in Brooklyn, New York. If it's past 11pm, the express service ends, and the N negotiates a late-night tangent down through lower Manhattan, crossing under the East river by tunnel. I avoid this, opting for the decidedly less-modern, bridge-faring D. This way I'm granted a perfect five-minute panorama of the city, morning and night. Recently I've been opening the back door and standing on the jostling chain-link platform between N cars to look at the Brooklyn Bridge, governor's island and the Statue of Liberty's reaching blue arm. Riding between cars is illegal. My mother would kill me. 

At night, heading home, I sit facing north to watch the three coloured squares of light that blink from a corner of the Brooklyn shoreline. They appear just after the curtain of Lower East Side apartment buildings is pulled back, revealing the river and the Long Island boroughs. The three rectangle grids of bulbs are bright as headlights, and alternate pattern, colour and shape. They seem to be built onto the side of a building in Williamsburg, just south of the bridge, where Kent ave meets South 9th (fancy apartments, I think). If they're signs, they advertise nothing. I've never seen anything like them: meaningless and specific, broadcasting nonsense patterns to the passengers who sit northwards on the night train.

John Updike shaped the minutia of life into some kind of grand narrative. Arcing baseballs and neon signs for cooking fat weighed equally on his scale, along with the Tappan Zee Bridge, stars and evolution. When I first read his stories, he was a relief to overwhelming teenage existentialism. Updike knew how to explain being a boy, falling in love, staring at neon lights. 

Only upon reading that he had died did I realise why the coloured squares over the East River have made so much sense to me since I moved here several months ago. 

On a November Tuesday, the kind of blowy day that gives you earache, the sign was set in place by eighteen men, the youngest of whom would some day be an internationally known film actor. At three-thirty, an hour and a half before they were supposed to quit, they knocked off and dispersed, because the goddamn job was done. Thus the Spry sign (thus the river, the trees, thus babies and sleep) came to be. 

Above its winking, the small cities had disappeared. The black of the river was as wide as that of the sky. Reflections sunk in it existed dimly, minutely wrinkled, below the surface. The Spry sign occupied the night with no company beyond the also uncreated but illegible stars.

~ "Toward Evening", John Updike (1956)

I was given his book of early short stories for Christmas in my senior year of high school, and I read this story (still my favourite) that winter. It was something I felt I'd spent a long time trying to find. 

In the summer of 2006 we interviewed Updike for a radio talk-show I worked for in Cambridge, MA. I was sent to meet him in the lobby, and my first thought was that he was far more elderly and birdlike than I had imagined (he is dashing and young on the cover of "The Early Stories"). I'd pictured a cousin, but got a grandfather, and I think I said very little. I worried for his bones when I shook his hand. I walked him to the radio room, where he and the host embraced, and I watched and listened through the glass. 

Soon it was 8pm, sunset in July at the end of an hour-long talk show. Updike was released from the hermetic studio into a New England summer dusk of saturated colour and cooling air. He signed my book and I walked him back to the parking lot. I had assumed that writers, especially the big, American ones, wore flashy Tom Wolfe suits and drove sports cars. John Updike wore a soft V-neck sweater and waved as he drove off in an unwashed minivan. 

With his death I am reminded of the man, but also of the story he wrote that I realise affected me so much when I was younger. The Spry sign is long since gone, but I've found my own on my long rides home over the bridge to Brooklyn, late at night, after a long day.