BEVERLY FARMS, Mass. — The midday lunch crowd at K.C.’s is just rolling in. In the back, eight construction workers — their toolbelts dangling off the backs of their chairs — are discussing the new Miss America between bites of homemade key lime pie. And across the room, settled under a red neon Budweiser sign in the window, John Updike is considering his place in the literary landscape.
“Being a writer has been a dream come true for me — like an answered prayer,” he says. “But I think I’m from the last generation of writers who can make that dream come true. The Nineties diet just doesn’t have as big a space for fiction.”
Neither saddened nor upset by the narrowing audience, Updike matter-of-factly makes his case and moves on with his tuna sandwich. It’s not as if he’s going to stop writing. And even if he wanted to, he’s not so sure he could. “It’s a little like a daily secretion,” he says with a chuckle. “I have to do it.”
Every morning, Updike wakes in his seaside home, not far from K.C.’s, and makes his way to what was once servants’ quarters over the kitchen, now a converted office. After glancing at the day’s news in the Boston Globe and thumbing through his mail, he sits behind one of four desks — in four different rooms — and does what he has been doing for the last 40 years: He writes.
His 48th and latest book, “Toward the End of Time,” is the story of Ben Turnbull, a retired investment banker living on the ocean north of Boston. Set in the year 2020, the novel depicts Turnbull leading a humdrum and lonely life following a war between China and the U.S. Told through journal entries, the book explores Turnbull’s psyche as he begins to face his mortality.
It is as much a representation of the author himself, concedes Updike, as it is fiction.
“I’d say Ben is about 60 percent me,” he says. “In simple terms, the book is about a guy who’s run out of stimuli. The present tranquil life I lead certainly has its charms, but it’s not immensely stimulating for a writer. That doesn’t mean I think my best fiction is behind me; it’s just that now I need to draw on issues a little closer to home.”
Since his first short story was published in The New Yorker in 1955, Updike has won two Pulitzer Prizes and established himself as one of the most prolific and influential writers of his generation, part of a tiny pantheon that includes Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud.
“All silver-haired and stooped,” he says of his peers. “Myself included. But they’re a pretty good bunch. They kept me on my toes. We’re all children of the Fifties, at least intellectually. That was the last print-centered decade, when writing really mattered. It’s still a kind of religion for us, in a way that I’m not sure too many young writers can grasp.”
Updike isn’t so much attacking contemporary writers as he is readers.
“There just isn’t the consumption of the sort of well-intentioned domestic realism we produced,” he says. “Why read about the private lives of fictional characters when you can turn to tabloid journalism for the real thing? It just seems to me that the whole book industry is geared toward writers who are writing down to the audience. What you get today is a kind of literary celebrity, and books that are more written about than read.”
Updike himself personifies the very essence of literary celebrity, but he remains hopeful that at least his work is read. So far, many reviews of “Toward the End of Time” have been less then favorable. Still, it’s not his first — or, most likely, his last — bad review and he takes it in stride.
“You merely read and seethe, possibly — but you seethe in silence and get on with it,” he says. “The next day dawns and there’s a lot of work to do.”
Updike, 65, who says he’s read almost every book his peers have turned out, says Bellow is the country’s greatest living writer. Bellow, says Updike, makes him feel joyful — happy to be alive.
“You couldn’t help but be my age and not be aware that the best writing was basically being done by Jewish Americans,” he says. “It was their moment to give the news. They had a certain sense of the urban reality. I guess I was the token WASP.”
Now, living in Beverly Farms, Updike is deeply entrenched in blue-blood territory. He and his second wife, Martha, have lived for 18 years in the same turn-of-the-century house pressed up against the jagged New England coast. The couple spend most nights at home and socialize with only a few friends and Updike’s four children from his first marriage, all of whom have started families in the area. They avoid the social circuit.
“Living here, among the Brahmins, is a little mystifying to me,” he says. “They have this degree of self-satisfaction in who their ancestors happened to be. These people are taking pleasure in money that their grandparents piled up. Even though I’m a WASP, I feel like an outsider.”
Born in the middle-class suburb of Shillington, Pa., Updike grew up in a small house with his parents and grandparents. His mother, Linda, who received a master’s degree from Cornell and was an unpublished author, tried to bring culture into her son’s rather ordinary childhood. She paid for painting and piano lessons and ultimately urged him to go to Harvard.
As a young man, he developed both a mild stutter and a bad case of psoriasis. He was driven to writing because it was one of the few professions that didn’t require him to work directly with others.
“I felt like a leper,” he says. “I kept waiting to grow out of it, but I never did. It has made me a very shy person.”
He remembers his excitement over the fact at 21, he would be married. He was eager to discover what he’d been missing.
“I’ve always felt a little behind the others as far as sex was concerned,” he says. “But I married early — it was the only way I could come to sex, really. Until then, my sexual experiences had been entirely dreaming, fumbling and feeling, but no real penetration.
“I don’t think you miss an awful lot, by the way,” he adds. “Like Freud said, it’s good to have a little repression. Your energy — your sexual interest — lasts longer if you don’t get off to a running start. I certainly didn’t have a running start.”
Updike has more than made up for it in his fiction: His novels are steeped in sex. In Esquire’s review of “Rabbit Run,” the first book in the four-part Rabbit series, Mailer praised Updike for his attempt to show sex at work in the lives of average Americans. In many reviews, however, Updike has been criticized for sexual explicitness. And some of his portrayals of women have been labeled sexist.
“I think a woman has to take her lumps at the hands of a fiction writer just like the male characters do,” he says. “I’ve always thought of myself as very sympathetic to women. Female editors have played a major part in my professional career. Who knows what goes on down in your ugly subconscious? But, on a conscious level, I’m not much minded to apologize for any of it.”
And while he says he has no practical experience with prostitutes, Updike has made very attractive characters out of hookers. Harry Angstrom left his wife for one in “Rabbit Run”; now, in “Toward the End of Time,” Ben Turnbull has a call girl move in when he’s left alone.
“The prostitute figures in male fiction as a benign, if not saintly, figure,” Updike says. “There’s something very appealing about the idea of a female prostitute, because she’s taken sex out of the realm of endless negotiation and put it into terms that are very finite and concrete. That’s a great relief to the male mind.
“The older you get, the more magical youth becomes,” he continues. “Those hard bodies of the young, and so on. It gives Ben a chance to look at his own death’s-head. She is memento mori.”
Considering the theme of the book, it’s obvious that death is a topic that’s been on Updike’s mind. But the author insists he’s not on his way out — longevity seems to run in his family.
“I used to worry about dying,” he says. “This feeling of being carried along, helplessly toward your own death was stronger when I was in my 30s than it is now, though I’m 30 years closer to my own death. It’s a paradox in a way, but the older you get, the less existential these questions become.
“But the human being has a nice capacity to put things out of mind,” Updike adds. “I guess I’m putting my death, to some degree, out of mind — and really only face it when I sit down to write fiction.”