John Updike’s “Couples”
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
When I moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, more than 40 years ago, I was stunned to discover that John Updike was my neighbor. I was a slightly published writer of fiction and poetry; he was my literary god. More than what he wrote, it was the way he wrote, his command of the English language, that enthralled me. Because he’d published so much, and was so successful, I looked on him as an older man. I didn’t know until Monday, when he died of lung cancer, that he was only four years older than I am.
When I got there, Ipswich was a town of about 6,000 people (it’s about 15,000 now, which is one of the reasons I left after 20 years). I put down roots quickly; the school principal recruited me to teach kindergarten when he learned I had taught first grade in Philadelphia. Then I began organizing for Gene McCarthy in the Democratic Primary. I really thought he could end the war in Vietnam. So I got to know lots of people very quickly, including John’s wife, who signed on as a campaign volunteer. (John was a supporter of the war. I imagine there were some interesting conversations in the Updike household.)
If you’re waiting for me to tell you how John Updike and I became friends and how he got me a gig with the New Yorker, forget it. We said good morning when we passed each other on Market Street. We nodded to each other when we showed up at town meeting. I was too shy to tell him what I thought about his writing. I couldn’t think of a thing to say to him.
One day I walked into McCarthy Headquarters, a rented storefront next to the news store, in time to hear the volunteer on duty telling someone on the phone, “He even used our bedroom for that sex scene.”
To people in Ipswich, Couples wasn’t exactly fiction. Updike changed the town’s name to Tarbox, moved the post office from Market Street around the corner to Central. Freddie the dentist was a dead ringer for the town pediatrician, Piet the carpenter was based on a builder in town. Updike inscribed a copy of the book for the builder by saying something like, “To _____, who helped me write this book more than he realizes.” Volleyball became basketball. My then-husband, an airline pilot, had a walk-on part in the book.
I’m leaving out names here because of the nature of the story: a group of married couples meet at the home of one of them on Sunday afternoons to play basketball, after which the couples have supper, after which everyone goes home with someone else’s spouse. That this was going on was fairly well known in town (this was the ’60s, after all). That it would show up in a novel created more than a “mild scandal” in the town.
Before long, the Updikes found it an opportune time to spend a year in England.
John Updike never lost his artistry with the English language, but after Couples he lost me as an admirer. That kind of writing malpractice gives writers a bad name. It’s one thing to take inspiration from something you’ve seen, heard, or experienced. It’s quite another — and, I think, a serious ethical breach — to write about people such that they can recognize themselves and others can recognize them as well.
A last word: as a hospice volunteer, I’ve sat with people dying of lung cancer, as Updike did. It’s an awful way to go. My son called this morning and mentioned a conversation he had with a friend who remembers seeing Updike leaving church on Sunday mornings, his hand already in his jacket pocket, pulling out a cigarette. If you’re still smoking, please think of this. It’s never too late to stop.
Posted on January 29th, 2009 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
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