On Hearing John Updike’s “Voice” for the First Time

I get my copy of the New Yorker magazine second-hand from a friend, so I receive a pile of them at a time, and work my way through them. This means there is sometimes a lag of a month or more between when they come out and when I get them, and some of the matters being explored therein have lost their sheen. I actually like this since it provides a filter for the ephemeral, and reminds me how much of what passes for information is really just entertainment.

So it was that I came to read a review of a book about writer John Cheever, one of my favorites, by John Updike, another of my favorites. The review was published on March 9, but Updike had died on January 27, and it occurred to me that this might be the last time I would hear Updike’s voice from the pages of the New Yorker, where a good many, perhaps most, of his short stories were first published.

Updike’s voice and I go way back. There are writers who seem to have always been part of one’s life, but I can pinpoint exactly when I read my first Updike. It was the summer of 1966, just about this time of year in the dog days of August. “The Summer of Love” was still a year away, but it was my summer of love, in that I was seventeen-years old and had my first real girlfriend. It was an exhilarating as well as a painfully troubled time in my life, for in addition to all the usual struggles of adolescence my mother was dying of cancer, which provided the emotional backdrop for this heady summer.

My girlfriend’s family was moving to California in September, and they were slated to go on a two-week vacation in August on their boat, which was a 42-foot Hatteras power yacht. Believing (mistakenly, it turned out) that she couldn’t live without me for two weeks, she persuaded her parents to invite me to join the family on their vacation, and I persuaded my parents to let me go. I think they thought it might be a break from the emotional heavy-lifting going on at home.

So I got to go on this amazing trip. We launched from the boat’s dock on the Hudson, and went into the East River by the Spuyten Duyvil, and eventually into Long Island Sound toward New England. We docked the first night in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, later to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and eventually we made our way to the island of Nantucket, my first time in Massachusetts, where I have lived for the better part of my life (mostly at the other end, in the Berkshires). I daily saw beautiful sights on land and sea.

My parents were culturally rich, but financially, not so much. My mother was a school librarian, and my father was trying to keep his small business from failing. This meant that the family had a somewhat tenuous finger-hold on the middle class, and vacations on a yacht didn’t feature in the family profile

This, then, was quite an opportunity for me, but the high life became short-lived when a confusing combination of youthful indiscretion and parental misunderstanding led to the decision that I was to be sent home

So I found myself on the dock of the White Elephant Yacht Club in Nantucket on the phone to home. My parents were not at home, but my younger brother Bill, then twelve, was, and I delivered him the message that I was flying in from Nantucket to La Guardia Airport and needed to be picked up. I told him the flight number and my time of arrival, said my goodbyes to the stormy vacationers, and left by cab for the Nantucket Airport. From there I experienced my first airplane flight, a rather bumpy short ride in a prop plane.

I arrived in New York, and waited in the terminal to be picked-up. It takes over an hour from where we lived in Bergen County, New Jersey, to get to La Guardia, so I was prepared to wait for awhile.

So there I was, a seventeen year-old kid from the suburbs, sitting in a busy New York airport, full of turbulent thoughts and emotions. I had just been on this dream vacation, and it was suddenly over. I had been voted off the boat, and now would have to explain that to my parents, who had enough to worry about without worrying about me. My girlfriend was moving away, and I would probably never see her again. My mother was sick and dying. I was starting my senior year and had no idea what I wanted to do, or where or whether I wanted to go to college. And it was beginning to seem like I had been in the airport a really long time. I tried calling home again, but this time there was no answer, so I figured maybe they were on their way (can you remember before cell phones?).

I left my reverie, found a bathroom, and noticed a store in the terminal. This was in the days before elaborate airport bookstores, but along with the candy and magazines was a circular wire rack display of paperback trade books. I perused the possible selections, and decided on two. One was a selection of short crime fiction by Eric Ambler, the name of which I have forgotten long ago, and the other was The Same Door by John Updike, the first collection of his short stories.

I don’t know why I chose Updike. I’m guessing I sized it up as serious, and God knows I wanted some of that in my life right then. I think I started with an Ambler story. Then I moved on to the Updike, and heard that voice for the first time.

How would I describe that voice? There was a fluency in his words that immediately brought you into a world so richly described that you could inhabit it for a time. His people weren’t heroic or engaged in grand escapades, but like me, were worried and sad and preoccupied with the scuffles of life, with sex and death and religion and all the other challenges of living.

I think I read them all. In any case I called home again and this time got through to discover that my brother’s message that I was coming home had been lacking in specificity, and so I waited another hour, maybe five or six in all, until my Dad came and got me. He didn’t seem particularly upset or even that interested in my story, which was a relief.

The summer ended, my life moved on, my girlfriend moved away, I went off to college, and my mother died. A decade later I was a pastor in rural Maine, and a friend (a different one) started bringing me his castaway New Yorkers. I have been regularly hearing that Updike voice all these years, through the novels and reviews, the poetry and the stories, above all, the stories. It became for me the voice of a particularly intelligent and insightful friend. I am going to miss it.

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