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Running With the Rabbit: My Memories of John Updike

January 27, 2009  |  11:18pm

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When I was in 8th grade, I had two teachers who changed my life. One was Mrs. Downes who kindly fostered my passion for creative writing, and the other was Mr. Dore who proved reading of great literature to be as important as listening to great music. This yin and yang, this one-two punch of mentors on my pubescent and malleable mind set my future course, which, gratefully, I still tread.

However, I am most indebted to them for introducing me to the words of John Updike. As our school was a mere mile or so from the house America's most distinguished living writer called home, both teachers made him a staple of our advanced syllabus to great effect: "Yes, you too could grow up to be a literary giant who lives down the block."

To belabor the point, one afternoon  Mr. Dore assigned Updike's, "A&P" for homework. Our moan and groans at such an extended page count even for a short story quickly turned to jeers when Mr. Dore also announced a substitute teacher would be leading the class discussion the following day. Tempted  to shrug off the assignment given the lack of authority becoming a surrogate teacher, I still thought it best to at least skim the pages.

Upon learning the narrator to be a teenager near my own age, working a summer job as a bag boy, a menial beat similar to my profession as a lawn mower, who noblely lusts after three slightly older teenage girls, easily identifiable by own hormone-addled self, all set in the next town over from my own, I hailed Mr. Updike a clear master of his craft. Imagine my surprise when the next day the substitute was none other than the author himself. He sat on a stool in front of our drop-jawed class and recited the entire story with the panache and skill of a wizened raconteur. 

Fortunately, it was not the last time my paths crossed with Mr. Updike. For the following three birthdays I chose first-edition hardcover versions of his short stories and essays from our local book store which were neatly inscribed by the author himself. My blatant idolatry centered not merely on his ability to capture untamed sentiments and unnamed passions in exquisitely sculpted prose, but through the New Yorker, his ability to chronicle my bittersweet and beleaguered affair with the Red Sox ( "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu") and worship for fellow literary giant and fellow Masshole, Jack Kerouac ("On the Sidewalk") with such efficiency, humor and dexterity a budding wordsmith could only dream of emulating.

One day while sneaking a joint on Crane's Beach, I stumbled into Mr. Updike, who frequented the stunning sand dunes to help a skin ailment of some kind. I sheepishly nodded hello and asked if he was writing something new. He mentioned he had just finished his latest and with an obvious nod to my heightened state of being, added with a smile that I was sure to enjoy it. It turned out to be Witches of Eastwick, which not only ended up being filmed on the same beach, but eerily one scene in particular was shot in the very same spot of our encounter.

It's not often we rub elbows with our heroes, and it is even more rare when they surpass expectations. Owing so much to the man and his talent that any celebration or adulation would seem cursory and inept, tonight, with a blizzard threatening, I simply will pull out his Assorted Prose, pour three fingers of Oban Single Malt and let Mr. Updike lead me on a literary tour of my youth; counting my blessings with each turn of phrase.

RIP

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