The latest 'Bech' -- effervescence at 76

October 11, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the sun

"Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel," by John Updike. Knopf. 241 pages. $23. John Updike invented Henry Bech in 1970, a curmudgeon of a Jewish writer. Welcome then to Bech in his third fictional incarnation, navigating the shoals of the Manhattan intelligentsia, site saturated in poisonous envy and reflexive intolerance and basic impotence." Bech at age 76 wins the Nobel Prize, sensing that Updike has been "wanting to set him aside ... get him off his desk forever."

In the first of these five novellas, "Bech in Czech," the anti-hero finds himself in Prague. Where Bech believes the writer's purpose is "to amuse himself, to indulge himself," his Czech readers discover "heroism ... the political grandeur of irresponsibility." Bech, recipient of Updike's self-irony, cannot think of anything "he had ever written that he would not eagerly recant." America, Bech considers, has "its rough spots," but "it's still a country that never had a pogrom."

Back home, Bech faces shrinking literacy no less than competitors. Airily he dismisses "Updike" along with O'Hara, Hersey and Cheever as "suburbanites living safe while the inner cities disintegrated." His particular antagonist, Izzy Thornbush, lures him into presiding over the sclerotic "Forty." "Just sit there on your tochis," Thornbush begs. In one wildly funny scene these luminaries, whose only purpose is to elect new members, can't find anybody "as wonderful as ourselves." No one will second the nomination of - Donald Judd.

Bech takes two lovers and becomes a father. He trundles off to Hollywood where a sanctimonious agent named Morris Ohrbach, whom Bech has dubbed an "arch-gouger," sues him for libel. Yet at the trial, Bech identifies the enemy with his hard-working, hapless father Abe. Social commentary surfaces: "L.A.'s a lot like Iran these days, everybody's either a fundamentalist or a whore." Psychological insight illuminates: "like all salesmen, he [Abe Bech] gave his best self to his prospective customers, and saved his rage, sarcasm, and indifference for his family."

Nor is Updike a stranger to surreal fantasy as "Bech Noir" hilariously transcends realism. From Bech's "creamy satisfaction" at the death of a venomous critic named Lucas Mishner, he goes on to murder three more, including an aged female of a "grit too fine to be found in the coarse sieve of Who's Who." As Orlando Cohen's oxygen tube is pulled, Bech howls: "You've been stealing my oxygen for years."

At the end Bech has garnered "the bounty of Sweden." He has bypassed Mailer, Roth, Ozick (!), Pynchon and DeLillo, and endured Charlie Rose, his "long face tinted the color of a salmon." Bech presides over the demise of literature, even as "corporate conspiracies" are turning "the world into one big pinball game for child-brained consumers." He has "done what he could ... tried to write his own books rather than books others wanted him to write."

"Bech at Bay" is wise and funny, charming and pointed. The effervescent clarity of Updike's prose remains, as ever, a testament to the abiding value of literature itself. In his respect for the grace of the language, in the high shine of his brilliance, prolific John Updike continues to do this culture an enormous service, one not to be taken lightly or for granted.

Joan Mellen is the author of 13 books, most recently "Hellma and Hammett." She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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