“Better Writer Than a Golfer”–John Updike (1932-2009)

Eliot Asinof, the author of a story of the “Black Sox” scandal of 1908 (“Eight Men Out,” for which he also cowrote the screenplay for the 1988 cinematic adaptation), was quite well-acquainted with John Updike, who passed away earlier this week.  Asinof passed away last June.  There is not room enough, nor need enough for now, to write more about the colorful life of Mr. Asinof.  But you might want to check that out for yourself.

Jennings Smith and I had the pleasure of playing a round of golf with Mr. Asinof at Cypress Lakes about fifteen years ago.  For some reason Don Whiteman and son Ed, the usual other pairing in our weekend foursome,  were not available for play.  Just as we were approaching the first tee, a gentleman somewhat older than either of us, came walking up behind us, also pulling his bag on a pull cart.  He consented to our invitation to play with us, and we set out for our four hours’ stroll (“a good walk spoiled” as Mark Twain reputedly once described it).  We learned his first name first, “Eliot” and then, as the day and our conversation progressed, I found out his last name was “Asinof” (not to be confused with the prolific biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was also born in 1920) and that he was a roving journalist and writer, best-known for “Eight Men Out.”

I also found out that he played in a tournament on occasion with other writers, one of whom was John Updike.  I knew that Updike was an avid golfer, and I asked Eliot who among the writing fraternity was the better golfer.  Eliot took little time to reply,  “Updike is a better writer than a golfer.”  One of the proud notes in Asinof’s obituary reports that he shot his age for the first time when he was 79.   The day he played at Cypress Lakes with Jennings and me, he shot,  as I recall, somehere in the mid-eighties.

I confess to not having read a great deal by Updike.  I dipped into his (for the time, scandalous) novel “Couples,” and I did read most of “Rabbit, Run,”  the first in his tetralogy about an American “antihero,”  “Rabbit” Angstrom, the last of which appeared only several years ago.  And more recently has come in 2008 “The Widows of Eastwick,”  the successor to his novel, “The Witches of Eastwick,”  which was made in a very successful film starring Jack Nicholson and with  Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

My familiarity with Updike’s writing comes mainly from his contributions to “The New Yorker” where, for the greater part of his life, he wrote brilliantly and with great versatility.  I was continually astounded by how much Updike had read and how much he knew–  about other writers from everywhere few of whom I had ever heard of. 

His versatility can be seen in the variety of forms and modes of his published work.  In the March 18, 1999, issue of “The New Yorker,” for instance, he contributes a poem titled “Country Music,” which cleverly targets and spoofs the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton affair, the first stanza (of four) which goes,

Oh Monica,  you Monica/In your little black beret/You beguiled our saintly Billy/And led that creep astray.

In the July 31,  2000, issue Updike contributed (he also wrote a poem about his love for golf that I may have stowed away elsewhere) an essay about the king of sports, titled “The Sporting World:  An Ode to Golf.”  Rivalling Andrew Marvell’s wonderful Restoration ode, “To His Coy Mistress,”  this essay richly brings to the surface all of the sensual and sexual appeal that makes this sport so seductively appealing to the male of the species.

His last published piece, so far as I recall,  appeared in  the October 20, 2008, issue,  in the occasional “Life and Letters” column.  It is titled “A Desert Encounter.”  Although it is likely that by this time Mr. Updike was aware of his fragile health,  the essay does not have the tone or the posture of an “ave atque vale”  (hail and farewell).  Yet it was for me an unusually personal and touching piece of writing, in which a “Roto-Rooter operative” and an aging, genial, and inquisitive neighbor cause him to explore out loud some deep emotions to strangers, an act quite  completely unlike him:  prompted by his gratitude for their finding a cherished hat that had disappeared as he was pruning on this, his fifth winter in the Southwest, some thick and spiny octotillo,  he reveals to them a great deal of his inner life.   

For some reason, he feels compelled to explain to them, but especially to the old and inquisitive neighbor, what the logo on the lost cap is:  the badge of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which Updike is a member (only 250 living Americans are so honored at any time)  and also Chairman of the Centennial Observance Committee that decided to give the hats to each member.      

It seems as if the older man represents the “ideal listener” that we would like to have.  Thus he is able, like Updike’s “New Yorker” colleague Joseph Mitchell, to wring from his interlocutor personal revelations, which others are usually denied:  

       “‘Isn’t that wonderful!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Did you hear that?” he asked the Roto-Rooter man, who softly slammed his truck’s back door.  ‘Did you ever hear of such a nice organization?  Writers, composers, painters, and sculptors, the best in the country?'”

Updike is completely taken in by the fellow’s interest and enthusiasm and consents to signing his name on the back on one of the Roto-Rooter man’s invoices.  One cannot now escape the realization that the last paragraph of the essay is an epiphany, one  that reaches deep into Updike’s soul:

         “The dusk was threatening to enwrap us.  The calls of the golfers to one another had been silenced.  At our feet a sizable city had begun to display its shimmering grid.  The Roto-Rooter operative moved, uncertainly, toward the back of the truck.  I felt that some concluding statement was expected from me. ‘I am delighted,’ I announced, to have my hat back,’ and tipped it, floppy as it was, to the two of them, first one and then the other, overcoming my fear that they might expect irony, where none was intended.”

I will post another commentary very soon on Updike as a masterful writer, maybe one of the last of a now-lost generation. . . .




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