The Pequod Review:
John Updike’s reputation is primarily as a chronicler of a specifically white, male, and middle-class version of mid-to-late 20th century America. Or, as Updike put it, “the middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery…. When I write, I aim in my mind toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.” But the real pleasures of his books lie in his extraordinary observations — the sentences and paragraphs — which have an almost Proust-like appreciation for the seemingly minor and inconsequential features of modern American life.
Updike’s greatest achievement as a novelist is his four-book Rabbit Angstrom series, which begins with Rabbit, Run. Updike creates the memorable character of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ignorant and philandering Midwestern everyman, who is trapped in a marriage, a job, and a small town that bore him. Harry would seem to be an unlikely candidate for a fictional hero, but it is in precisely his ordinariness and limitations that Updike finds meaning and purpose — and when Harry arrives at rare moments of insight and wisdom, it becomes all the more powerful. At the time of this first novel, Harry is in his mid-20s; the later books would chart his life through pivotal moments in his own development and key events in American history.
Updike’s reputation has dimmed a bit in the last twenty years, as his strongly masculine perspective (which includes a lot of sex) has been poorly received by some modern critics. This perhaps peaked following a widely misread 1997 David Foster Wallace profile which, while laudatory of Updike’s broader body of work, described him as “a penis with a thesaurus” and a voice of "the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV." I am sympathetic to that view, but these criticisms fail to appreciate that Updike finds meaning in Harry’s life despite his faults, not because of them. And meanwhile there are still those sentences and paragraphs, which exist wholly apart from any other flaws, and which are why Updike’s reputation is likely to outlast most of his contemporary peers.