Pulitzer Prize winning author John Updike died Tuesday and chances are you've heard the sound bites already. He is the guy who wrote the “Rabbit” books. You know, “Run, Rabbit” and “Rabbit is Rich.” He is considered by many to be one of the great literary figures in American history. Here's the thing, though, the sound bites won't tell you: John Updike is a man who speaks truth. He's incredibly funny and not in that stand-up comedian kind of way. He's got this wry, ironic spin to everything he says but he never sounds supercilious or pretentious – it’s the sincerity in his humor that brings it home. His observations amuse and sting at the same time - you can't help but see yourself in his masterfully crafted observations; you laugh and think, ‘This man really gets it.’
He’s a guy who thinks deeply about things but doesn't talk over your head.
And he was human, infallibly human. John Updike, who like most of us had professional jealousies, envied Jack Kerouac so much he refused to read “On the Road” for years after it was published. Instead, Updike wrote a sort of antithesis of it with his novel “Run, Rabbit.” Updike thought that not everyone can be on the road all the time. Someone has got to be back at home doing things or nothing would get done, he said. That's what came out of his small-town Pennsylvania upbringing - an appreciation for home and not for running.
This theme is reflected in the character known as Rabbit. Rabbit was a family man, a very unhappy family man. And Rabbit ran; he hit the road like so many people in the 1960’s feeling constrained by middle class conformity adopted in the 1950’s, but inexorably Rabbit found himself going back home again. When asked about this, John Updike said, "I think a lot of us yearn for more freedom, the ultimate freedom of walking away, but then when we do it, we realize we don't know what to do now that we're free." Besides, he said bringing the theme back to Kerouac’s beatnik pretension, even though Kerouac hung around with Allen Ginsberg and that crowd, he used to run home to Mama Kerouac's cooking for months at a time, "So, so much for him." See, even Kerouac didn't want to be on the road all the time.
So, at a time when the middle class was bursting out onto the road and rebelling against the constraints of domestication, John Updike chose to write about just that; families and their real lives lived behind closed doors, the place where the rubber hits the road for all of us; the hard place, the place where there is no place left to hide, where we are who we really are, and we aren't running anymore.
Even if you never read a word he said, do yourself a favor - log onto http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99945565 and download the NPR broadcast of interview excerpts with John Updike compiled by Terry Gross on Fresh Air from WHYY. His words will inspire you and move something deep within you that needs moving, I guarantee it.