by Anthony Varallo
John Updike didn’t want to be a writer; he wanted to draw cartoons. When John Updike was twelve years old, he sent his first cartoon to The New Yorker (they rejected it). When he was twelve years old, a dogwood tree leaned against John Updike’s home in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Shillington is a frequent setting for John Updike’s short stories, sometimes renamed “Olinger.” Olinger should be pronounced with a hard g sound, John Updike once explained. It is difficult to tell if John Updike’s alter ego, Henry Bech, should be pronounced with a hard c sound, as in “peck,” or a soft c, as in “bench.” John Updike often slept in late, saying he preferred that “someone else start the world for him.” When someone else read John Updike’s work, they usually read Rabbit, Run; when John Updike read his own work, he usually read his poetry. Critics of John Updike often complained about his characterization of women and self-conscious prose. “John Updike has nothing to say,” they said. The one time I met John Updike, he signed my book and said, “I hope you won’t sell this on E-bay.” John Updike is the only writer to have a short story reprinted in six consecutive decades of The Best American Short Stories. In one of my favorite John Updike stories—from the first John Updike collection I ever purchased—John Updike describes a snowy parking lot crisscrossed with tire tracks as “a blackboard in reverse.” The John Updike Society recently purchased John Updike’s childhood home for $180,000, with plans to turn it into a museum. In John Updike’s short story, “Museums and Women,” the narrator compares his first wife to a “room of porcelain vases: you enter and find your sense of yourself abruptly clarified by a cool, shapely expectancy in the air.” David Foster Wallace said that John Updike wrote like a penis with a thesaurus. The time I met him, John Updike wore a red tie and a brown sportcoat. John Updike wrote his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, in less than three months. The Poorhouse Fair is set in the town where John Updike grew up and will likely be mentioned during the museum tour of his childhood home. I did not tell John Updike how much I admired his writing; instead, I told him I liked a story of his in a recent New Yorker. “Oh, but that’s a story I’ve written several times before, isn’t it?” John Updike laughed. A tribute piece to John Updike is nothing new; Nicholson Baker wrote a memoir, U and I, about John Updike. (John Updike liked it.) John Updike did not learn to swim until he was in college. Usually I don’t tell writer friends how much I like John Updike. John Updike had a slight stutter. John Updike won two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. John Updike signed my book Good luck, John Updike.
This story was born out of a desire to pay homage to John Updike, and began as a Word file titled, flatly, “John Updike,” into which I poured everything I knew about John Updike, had ever read about him, or, in the case of the one time I briefly met him, had written in a journal entry I’ve kept for years, which included his self- deprecating joke to me: “Oh, that’s a story I’ve written several times before, isn’t it?” All I would have to do, I figured, was keep adding to the story until it was “done.”
But the story didn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’d open the file and add another sentence or two, then go back to something else I was working on. Other times I just forgot about it altogether. And then one day—and I have no idea how this happened—I opened the file again, read what I had written, and decided that what the story needed was a structure, an organizing principle that would lend a shape to all these bits and pieces and facts and quotes and memories, and that structure would be:
• the title of the story would be “John Updike”
• the first words of the story would be “John Updike”
• the last words of the story would be “John Updike”
• every sentence would include the words “John Updike”
The structure, rather than limiting what I was trying to do, helped me see more deeply into the story—or at least I hope so.
Anthony Varallo is the author of This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. His third story collection, Think of Me and I’ll Know, will be published by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books in Fall 2013. Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse.