updike0As many of you know the writer John Updike just died at the age of 76. By a freak accident (he was the keynote speaker at a writing conference in Princeton, New Jersey, where I put on a workshop) I once spent part of an evening with him and we also had breakfast the next day. This poem from my book Dogs Dream of Running was the result. It pretty much encapsulates the history of American letters and is absolutely true.

– John Lehman





John Updike Spills the Beans

Riding through New Jersey


It was about this same time of year. We

were driving through a rural New Jersey

night, the wife of a Princeton Italian pro-

fessor, Tom Kennedy and me. She had

organized a day for us to conduct writing

workshops and now after the culminating

event, a lecture by the legendary John

Updike, we were headed to a reception

at the house of a dean. “Wasn’t Updike

something?” we all asked, remembering

the eloquence of his extemporaneous

words as they blended seamlessly with

excerpts which he read, like some vast

swelling on a literary sea, to raise us, not

to truth or beauty, but to a new, profound

level of sleep. Tom admitted to nodding

off several times and I to once awakening

with a start. Even our hostess could not

deny, “with the warmth, the lights, the `oh

so busy’ day…” But now how deliciously

refreshed we were, ready over cocktails

and hors d’oeuvres to impress each other,

all over again, with cleverness and wit.


Later, in the Cadillac en route to the motel,

we three were joined by the man himself.

He proved humble in a way the successful

are humble, dismissing their genius, though

mindful the rest of us be sure to disagree.

A lanky man slightly bending an enormous

head, he said, “I couldn’t help but notice

there was one person who…fell asleep.”

Was that the engine or his rising voice that

roared? He continued, “All I could think of

was how I might rouse this poor soul in the

third row from her stuporous dreams.” At this

pronoun Tom and I exhaled, and our driver

let us know, from where she was sitting

in the wings she didn’t see anything. “Well,”

he sighed, “that reminds me of when T.S.

Elliot came to Yale. We had waited hours

in line to hear him speak. Student seats

were high in the balcony and amidst the

rising radiator heat…” And here the courtly

Updike chortled to himself, like a spent

wave tickling the sand on a distant beach.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “I fell asleep.”



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