Seeing Suburbia and beyond

Our view: John Updike's thoughtful vision illuminated our world

January 29, 2009

The death of John Updike, a brilliant, nuanced and tireless chronicler of ordinary life in America, makes us wonder what Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom would do in the economic crisis now changing the course of millions of lives. Rabbit is Mr. Updike's novelistic everyman whose dreams, crude vanities and fears held up a mirror to our world through four decades.

In Rabbit at Rest, Mr. Updike imagines his protagonist, a Pennsylvania car dealer retired to Florida, brooding in the final year of Ronald Regan's presidency. "Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years ... of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God," he wrote.

Would Rabbit be similarly precise about today's world and sink into depression, forced by the loss of his savings to work on commission on a used car lot? Or would he be lifted, as many have this winter, by the hope that a new young president would help the nation turn to a brighter future? It's hard to say. What we do know is Mr. Updike's vision would be both artful and true.

Through his long career, Mr. Updike produced short stories, novels, essays, book reviews and poetry on a breathtaking array of topics. Many of his novels focused on the minutiae and personal challenges of the middle class, life as he saw it in the small towns north of Boston where he lived for many of his 76 years. "The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me," he once said in an interview.

That his astute and lyrical observations about life won't grace another page is a reader's loss.

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