TRIBUTE TO JOHN UPDIKE at The JFK Library June 7, 2009

August 6th, 2009 by admin

This is a short story of a long friendship.

John was the second writer I ever met. It was 1979, my first novel had come out, he was 46, I 34. We met at a party of PEN New England at the house of the writers Robie Macauley and Pam Painter. My first impression was clouded by nervous awe, but luckily it was summer and our conversation turned to golf, John’s passion, and my sport at our shared alma mater, Harvard. A week later I was out on a forlorn public golf course packed with carts-full of beer-swilling guys in T-shirts whose swings were converted from hockey. There had been a mistake and we were a five-some. A six-some, actually. Another young writer in the group, supposedly happily married, had brought along his petite blond girlfriend and spent a lot of time in the woods with her while we played on. Reappearing, flustered, they would walk along with her arm around his waist, her hand tucked neatly into the hip pocket of his jeans—a true Updikean touch.

You can tell everything about a person by the way they play a sport. Last night I calculated that in thirty years John and I spent at least 5000 hours playing golf. We had a regular foursome, and often played with his son David, now also a dear friend. But often it was just John and I, walking along together, bags on our shoulders, talking. In golf John was meticulous—our scorekeeper, cherishing those little yellow golf pencils; frugal, picking up pencils and tees all during the round; steady as a fair Christian but for an uncontrolled deviance into the raw sensuality of woods and briars and swamps and lakes and sand traps; reliable to a fault on the greens; capable of astonishing flights of golf poetry and sudden crashes into golf trash—and really funny. Once when he and I were teamed up against the other two and I complained of a bad back, on the 2nd tee he said, “Steve, I want you to know that if it’s a choice between helping the team and hurting your back, I want you to hurt your back.” Always on the 4th hole he and I would talk about his medical questions, and always walking up the long par five 8th fairway we had our “literature and career” chat, what we were reading and writing, the folly of both popular and literary taste, what the gossip was. Often he would repeat something I said, and I knew I would soon see it in a book. He had an astonishing eye, and in golf gathered details—one fall day he walked off the course to make sure he knew the name of the last tree to turn color—I believe ash, or hickory. Harry’s condo in Florida in RABBIT AT REST was, in fact, my parents, whom John stayed with to make sure he got it right.

Janet and I had a house in Gloucester, twenty minutes from him and Martha, and we became another foursome—seeing each other often for dinner, celebrating each birthday together, and Christmas at their home with their mixed families. Soon there started arriving book after book, and private editions as birthday presents, as well as cartoons and drawings—such as a set of four golf balls, on each a cartoon of the face of a member of our foursome. One night Janet, a psychologist, insisted that John and I take the Meyers Briggs Personality Inventory, and then announced the results. I came out as a writer; he came out as an office worker or clerk. So much for psych testing. Every book he sent had an inscription, often blaming me: “For Steve, who ruined this novel by a) suggesting it, b) inquiring after it constantly and making me talk its lovely essence away.” For a New Yorker review of The Bible: “For Steve, without whom this piece would have been composed with much less distraction”—but to each of these he added, “with affection and esteem.” John was the most loyal friend I ever had: he would always show up at events for my books or plays, he would listen attentively to my publishing woes, and if I was going through a rough time and we hadn’t talked on the phone for a while, he would always call—imagine, a man who always calls! When my publisher asked him if he’d write the introduction to a 25TH anniversary edition of my novel THE HOUSE OF GOD, to my surprise he said yes, and included it in one of his anthologies. Though never directly, in postcards and letters and half-joking inscriptions, he pointed out my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, always in an encouraging way.

I never saw him yawn, and he rarely lost his temper: mostly on the golf course, once at dinner at home when he was so angry that he pointedly let his napkin drop a full five inches from his hand to the table. He was the most generous of critics; only in the last few years did I ever hear him voice irritation at a writer—one in particular, who shall remain nameless. He talked freely with me about the craft. I learned an enormous amount from him.

We had a secret joke: in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK, he wrote “The new young editor of the Word, Toby Bergman, slipped on a frozen stick outside the barber shop and broke his leg.” In my next novel, THE SPIRIT OF THE PLACE, I wrote, “The new young editor of the Crier, Toby Updike, slipped on a frozen stick…” etc. And when last year I received his last novel, THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK, sure enough there “Toby Bergman” was again. In my new novel there is a final, leg-rebroken, “Toby Updike.”

The last few years of our friendship, because of various orthopedic surgeries on my part, were not on the golf course. Rather we would meet for lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club. He timed our lunches to his delivery of boxes of his personal papers to Houghton Library. He always seemed shy when he announced himself to the librarian—John was always wonderfully humble. He was modest, but with a rock-solid confidence. Once, after a novel of his had gotten panned, I asked how he handled it. “They’re talking about my novel,” he said, “not about me.”

Last summer we had a belated joint-birthday lunch at Myopia Hunt Club, John’s exclusive old-Yankee golf course at which he never seemed quite comfortable. I noted his old man’s wrinkled and scarred face but then—when I looked into his eyes—(those eyes!)—I recognized the signature boyish joy at being alive and at play for another great day. He and I, two small-town boys sitting there in a grown-up’s exclusive club eating our BLT’s off bone China on a starched white tablecloth. The sun shone hot on the 18thgreen, lighting it up as if it were made of crushed emeralds. Over lunch we laughed, hard, happy to see each other again and delighted with our good fortune in life, talking about everything as best friends do, and then parting, he with his gentle handshake and slight stammer. As I drove off I turned and saw him walking away slightly stooped, snowy hair shining in the sunlight, but with a bounce in his step as he swung his putter along, heading toward the green to practice.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

There was a last postcard, in November. He told me about his diagnosis, and a few other things, and about the care his family was showing him. After that, he drew back, into himself. I knew that the suddenness and aggressiveness of his cancer had been a shock to his self-image, an end that simply does not happen to those who, despite their bodies, feel young, feel in touch with, in his transcendent line in one of his last poems, : “our heaven at the start and not the end of life.” I kept in touch through David, and notes I wrote him.

There are all different kinds of love in the world, and John wrote brilliantly about most of them. He taught me a lot about the love in a friendship, and I find myself thinking about him most days as if he’s still around, and then, realizing he’s not, missing him pretty badly. When you don’t get to say goodbye, there’s a hole in your heart, sometimes for a long time. So I just want to say, “Goodbye, John. I loved you. You will live with me, and all of us here today, for the rest of our lives.”

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