THE PASSING OF KURT VONNEGUT AND JOHN UPDIKE

Two great American writers have passed from the scene recently in Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. Vonnegut exerted a dramatic pull on me while younger, since we read a good deal of his work during prep school english, and here I refer to Vonnegut’s classic works such as Slaughter-House Five and Player Piano. This work was imaginative, clever, funny and crossed the boundaries of science fiction, fantasy and plain old story telling. It’s hard to think of another writer who wove plots the way Vonnegut did across time and space. Naturally with all the science fiction we see on TV and the movies today, we accept this as a commonplace, but back in the day, this was not a conventional way of writing.

Vonnegut’s other work was so well-known that it made its way into the popular culture, into rock and pop lyrics, into band names, into other people’s novels and short stories, and was the inspiration for many television and movie scripts. Vonnegut has probably been “sampled” more than any other twentieth century writer. He had a distinctive voice, a distinctive style, and once you read him, you didn’t really look at things the same way again.

Of course, Vonnegut is best known for his depiction of the American fire-bombing of Dresden in one of his books, and the not-so-subtle comparison of it to the napalm bombings of Vietnam. It’s very likely that his literary use of WWII to make an antiwar comment about Vietnam gave rise in part to the Robert Altman directed movie MASH, which used the Korean War to make an antiwar comment about Vietnam, which in turn gave rise to the nearly ten year long TV show MASH. As I noted, Vonnegut’s ideas and notions were widely influential. The idea of protesting one war by fictionalizing another was uniquely Vonnegut’s, but it had slid into the mainstream by the mid-1970s and was hit comedy television.

Vonnegut was funny, disrespectful, and interesting to the end of his days. For this, we should commend him. We will probably never see his like again.

Updike was a prolific fiction writer. I never really got behind his Rabbit Run series about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. I never bought into the seventies malaise of suburban growups trading wives, having affairs, or searching for answers after 40 and 50 in the arms of younger women. None of that made sense to me and consequently, none of his fiction resonated particularly with me.

What I did love were his essays about sports. He wrote about golf in a way that really made sense to me, and of course, he wrote one of the most famous baseball essays of all times, the essay about Ted Williams last at bat, which is so famous that if Updike had written nothing else in his career, he’d probably have gotten a pretty long obit just for that. But he seemingly tossed those off with ease. Of all Updike’s many obits, only Sports Illustrated noted his sports essays; what an omission by the general press.

John Updike on October 22, 1960 in the New Yorker Magazine published what is arguably the greatest baseball essay ever written, the essay that really gave rise to the entire mythos and legend that we now know as “Red Sox Nation”. Before this essay was written, the Red Sox were just another team. After it, they became the darlings of the Harvard and Northeast intellegentsia forever.

Here, I refer of course to the famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, which documents the final at bat of Ted Williams’ career, in which he hits a home run. The essay is so brilliant, I wouldn’t want to omit you reading it for yourselves, so here’s the link page to the New Yorker so you can read it for yourselves;

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1960/10/22/1960_10_22_109_TNY_CARDS_000266305

The essay is filled with Updike-isms. Ty Cobb is the “Einstein of Average”. Fenway Park is “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” Ted Williams was known as “TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL.”

Updike’s description of Williams’ last home run is immortal:

“Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

New Yorker, id at p.6.

“Gods do not answer letters.” A true Updike-ism. That I consider this to be Updike’s finest essay, or that anyone might consider this to be Updike’s finest essay, should come as no surprise.

We live in an era of flawed heroes. Athletes who are constantly arrested, constantly in court, constantly discovered to have cheated, to have used steroids, brandishing tatooes, illegitimate children and other paraphernalia of personal baggage.

Ted Williams was a true hero. He served his country with distinction in the second world war and the korean conflict as a fighter pilot, and thought nothing of giving up five of his prime years of baseball to do so. even giving up those five years, and without juicing, junking or cheating, he managed to hit .400 in a season, win batting titles and smash home run records, drive in hundreds of runs, and hit more than 500 career homers while hitting well over .300 for his career, while drawing a huge number of career walks and scoring a ridiculous number of runs.

I’d like for someone to show me one professional athlete (other that the late Pat Tillman) who has given up pro sports to serve his country lately. It would be refreshing if the United States rekindled the draft and didn’t exempt professional athletes. a couple of years in the army might do them some attitude readjustment good. They might actually learn the meaning of the word “team”.

Updike of course understood all this. That’s why he loved Ted Williams and immortalized him for all time in his essay. Updike knew the difference between a hero and a mere mortal. Gods don’t answer letters. They just do heroic acts like serving their country and performing on the field.

A great book by Updike that also resonated with me was a wonderful collection of essays “Hugging the Shore,” which usurped his many fine essays from the New Yorker and elsewhere.

I used to love Updike’s essays in the New Yorker. I remembered one he wrote, which must have been five thousand words or more, on the joys of hanging out at the beach in the summer at Cape Cod. But Updike he also wrote many fine critical essays, as well as such personal essays, and all of them were finely crafted and well written. They were the essence of what you wanted to read in the New Yorker while commuting home from work, or just laying at the beach yourself.

Updike was a literate and intelligent man, and a writer’s writer. He was the editor of the Harvard Lampoon of 1954, but he was no buffoon, and no poonie turned Hollywood script writer. Instead, he became directly a man of American letters, an acknowledge novelist, critic and spokesman for his generation. He had a way with words.

Born outside of Reading, PA, in Shillington, he referred to his hometown always as “pollenny Pennsylvania,” a clever and abstract alliteration. Needless to say, he was a north shore man, not really a Cape Cod man at all, cleaving to Ipswich, Mass and their fine food and exquisite antiques.

Here I have to note that I have never liked Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, or any of a dozen other novelists who competed for attention on the shelves of bookstores with Vonnegut and Updike during their heydays. Much seventies writing seemed overly obsessed with self, sex, religion, or other personal subject matters that were hideously Dostoevskian and self-absorbed. It was as if writing one’s own life down on paper had become an acceptable substitute for the actual drafting of fiction.

Vonnegut and Updike didn’t buy into this. They actually were craftsmen. They seemed to transcend all, or at least a great deal of this, Vonnegut by consciously making fun of it all, and Updike by writing so well about so many things, he transcended the subject matter. In short, they didn’t fall into the malaise that many of the writers of their generation did, and consequently, they stand head and shoulders above them.

–art kyriazis south jersey/philly
home of the world champion philadelphia phillies

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