November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Smelcer & Updike

John Updike

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

 By John E. Smelcer

Novelist, poet, short story writer, art and literary critic, John Updike (1932-2009) was the author of numerous novels, the most famous of which were his “Rabbit” books. His Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won Pulitzer Prizes for literature, making Updike one of only a few writers to win two Pulitzers (William Faulkner was one). He won the O. Henry Prize for short stories several times in his distinguished career. Millions of American high school and college students have read his “A&P.”

My friendship with John Updike began in 1994 when he and I served as judges for the National Poetry Book Award. I remember very well the manuscript we selected that year. My wife and I were driving to our cabin in Tazlina, a Native village about 180 miles east of Anchorage, where we lived at the time. I had brought along a stack of submissions, and, to help, my wife began reading aloud a few poems from one of the collections. I abruptly stopped and asked her to drive so that I could read the manuscript myself. The remarkable poems were based on Eskimo myths from the circumpolar north. As a mythologist, I was immediately intrigued. I knew within a dozen pages that I was holding the winning manuscript. After our weekend at the cabin — where I carefully read the entire collection — I sent a photocopy of the manuscript to John, who called to tell me he agreed. And so Denise Duhamel’s The Woman with Two Vaginas won the $1,000 prize and was published the next year. The book gained national notoriety as a banned book when the contracted printing firm refused to print it, which, of course, only made it more popular. When I sent John his honorarium he refused it, telling me to donate the money instead toward promoting the winning book. John and I didn’t communicate much after that, although for a few years his family was on my Christmas card mailing list.

Five years later, in 1999, I was invited to read at a number of literary venues in and around Boston. On hearing news of my itinerary (my first visit to the East Coast since a lecture trip to Moscow) John asked me to arrange a free day so that he and I could visit. I called his house from the airport to tell him I had rented a car and was on my way to Beverly, the lovely seaside hamlet about thirty miles north of Boston where Updike lived. It was early morning, and I recall that Martha answered in a sleepy voice. When John came on the line, he said he had a surprise for me. On the short drive up from Boston, I wondered what it was he had in store. When we met in Beverly, we had breakfast at a café in town. Over pancakes and coffee, John shared his amazing surprise. He told me that he had called his old friend, J. D. Salinger, and had arranged a luncheon in Salinger’s home village of Cornish, New Hampshire, just a couple hours drive northwest of Beverly.

Needless to say, I was elated at the prospect of meeting J. D. Salinger.

Half an hour into the trip, as we were making our way over to Highway 93 North, we pulled into a town and began looking for a gas station with a restroom (ah, the wondrous effects of coffee). As we drove along the main street, I saw a store that sold used books and CDs. On our way back to the highway I managed to persuade John to let me have a few minutes inside the store, despite our schedule. I bought a couple of hardback copies of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories so that the venerable author could sign them for me and for my twelve-year-old daughter, who would undoubtedly read Catcher in school within a few years. I also bought a cheap CD of hits that were popular in the early 1960s, when I was born. I have a habit of singing aloud in the car. Some people say I have a good voice. My uncle Herbert would have disagreed. He always hated that I’d sing whenever we’d go anywhere together, moose or caribou hunting or salmon fishing at the headwaters of the Klutina River.

But then an unexpected miracle happened.

John started singing with me.

For the most part, we knew the words to every song. For the next hour we sang our hearts out to songs like Mark Dinning’s sappy “Teen Angel,” Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet,” The Tokens’ contagious rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl.” (I’ve been reminded recently that some of these songs were first popular in the ’50s but gained chart-topping success as remakes in the early ’60s).  Imagine my glee: John Updike — thirty-one years my senior — and me, driving along in a rental car singing and laughing and cheering each other on, hollering lyrics neither of us had heard in years. It was a side of him that few people might imagine, especially given his age: playful, humorous, and genuine. Road trips often bring out the silly in folks. While writing this essay, I looked hard for that CD in my collection, but I couldn’t find it.

We arrived at the appointed restaurant in Cornish twenty or thirty minutes early. I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was downstairs in an historic inn. Come to think of it, it may have been the only restaurant in town. That someone as famous as Salinger lived in such a small and isolated hamlet amazed me. But, then, he was somewhat the recluse. While waiting for our guest, I was editing a spiral-bound, photocopied manuscript of my short stories I had been working on. I put it away when Salinger arrived. Updike, all smiles, introduced me, and Salinger told me to call him Jerry (the “J” standing for Jerome). John told Jerry about our singing in the car on the way up. To prove it, John and I sang a few lines of “Teen Angel.” People sitting nearby turned around to listen to our duet, and some even applauded. We were embarrassed. But Jerry laughed and told us how that song had been banned from radio play in the US and England, but climbed to the top of the charts in both countries nonetheless.

I used to wonder why J. D. Salinger would know that bit of trivia. Not long after, it hit me: Of course he knew that bit of trivia. Salinger was the creator of that quintessentially brash teenage underachiever, Holden Caulfield.

Photo by John Updike

Photo by John Updike

For the most part I was a third wheel at the table, listening to the two great novelists, John Updike and J. D. Salinger, catching up. But at some point during lunch, Jerry asked what it was I had been working on when he arrived. I reluctantly showed him the manuscript, and Updike complimented the stories enough so that Salinger asked to see them. After reading the first story at the table — while I fidgeted nervously and chewed off my fingernails — Salinger asked if he could keep the bound manuscript, promising to make comments and to return it to me in a week or two. In my blithering attempt to seem grateful, I insisted he accept five bucks for mailing costs and wrote my address on the cover. True to his word, the manuscript arrived some weeks later with his very useful suggestions, including his recommendation to trash a few stories or to start them over from scratch from a different angle or point of view. I often wonder what he thought about my boneheaded offer of five bucks. I think he volunteered to read my stories because I didn’t ask him in the first place and because he was legitimately interested, not so much in me but in Alaska.

Maybe he loved Jack London’s stories as a boy.

I didn’t see John Updike again until the early fall of 2006 when I moved to Binghamton, New York, to work on a Ph.D. in creative writing. John invited me to have lunch with him in Beverly. And although it was a long way to drive for a lunch, I went anyhow, and I’m glad I did. I remember we ate in a café on a village square where we could see docks and boats and seagulls just a few hundred feet down the hill.

In the months before his death, John volunteered to look through my poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Binghamton Poems, offering editorial suggestions and a jacket blurb, even though I’m certain he was very busy working on his own writing projects, including Endpoint, his last collection of poems, which was published posthumously.

From my own experience, at least, John Updike was more than a man of letters and a literary lion — he was also a man of great generosity. No matter how many years pass, I’ll never forget the two of us bobbing our heads and singing in that car.

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About the author: 

John Smelcer was recently the Clifford D. Clark Fellow of literature and creative writing at Binghamton University, State University of New York. The author of over forty books, he is one of the last speakers of two endangered Alaska Native languages and the editor-compiler of dictionaries of each (Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker wrote forewords to one; His Holiness The Dalai Lama provided a foreword to the other). His bilingual poetry book, Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems (Truman State UP, 2011) was hailed a “literary landmark.” He served as judge of the National Poetry Book Award for over a decade. He is associate publisher and poetry editor at Rosebud magazine and a contributing editor to Ragazine.