Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: John Updike (1973)

It happened at a now long-forgotten little bookstore on an out-of-the-way side street, in Cambridge Massachusetts, a few hundred yards from the gates of Harvard University.

The store was the Phillips-Brentano Bookstore, and I was working there as a clerk and hardcover buyer while I finished my graduate thesis and tried to figure out how to be writer. It was a pleasant space, with large glass windows across the front, old-fashioned brick floor, and stairs leading to an open, second-story loft.

The store had begun life as an independent bookstore owned by someone named Phillips, until it was bought in the late 1960s by Brentano’s, an American bookstore chain with a noble history, starting with a store opened in nineteenth-century Paris by August Brentano. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” the protagonist Charlie Wales rides in a cab along the Avenue de l’Opera and describes the blue hour of a Paris evening this way: “They were closing the iron grill in front of Brentano's Bookstore, and people were already at dinner behind the trim little bourgeois hedge of Duval's.”

But, being off the beaten path of Harvard Square, our little Brentano’s was one of the lesser jewels in the national chain of stores, and not the first choice among the Cambridge literary crowd. The foot traffic down the sidewalk was usually on its way a half block further toward the Charles River, to the legendary Elsie’s Sandwich Shop, a crowded single-counter place that served up heart-stopping roast beef sandwiches that were a student favorite.

As a result, not many famous people, authors or otherwise, came our way. Once a year, we might catch a glimpse of a Hollywood actor or actress in town to be honored by the university’s Hasty Pudding Club, whose theater was across the street, and on a snowy afternoon in January 1974, as part of a weird university publicity event, for reasons unexplained, John Wayne was driven down the street on an armored personnel carrier and pelted with snowballs by antiwar protesters.

It was a surprise, therefore, when in the fall of 1973, John Updike walked in. By then, he was already a popular and well-respected American writer. He had written the first two of his four novels about Rabbit Angstrom, the best-selling and sexually explicit Couples, and dozens of New Yorker short stories.  

In person, he was unmistakable. He was tall, dressed in a suit and overcoat, with a narrow, beakish face and shaggy hair. He looked more Updikean than any photo of him I had ever seen, more like Updike than all the David Levine caricatures in the New York Review of Books. Seeing him walk across the floor, through my mind’s-eye image of him, was like the opening of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show, where the real Hitchcock walks into his own caricature profile.

I was standing with another clerk at a cash register island near the store entrance. The other clerk spotted him first. She went pale and, in an involuntary response to being in the presence of someone famous, started giggling uncontrollably.

Updike approached us and, ignoring my colleague’s discomposure, asked her if we had any books by the novelist Patrick White. In the few seconds before his approach, the young woman had been desperately trying to regain control of herself, but as soon as he opened his mouth, she lost the battle. Her giggling rose in pitch, and the struggle within her for control was fully evident. Her face was suffused, and perspiration appeared on her temples.

From my vantage, I watched the progress of Updike’s confusion play out in his facial expression and body language. At first, he appeared to be wondering if he had interrupted some kind of bookstore hijinks. He took a half step backward. Then, perhaps sensing that his own presence was the real source of the trouble, he regarded the young woman with a look of genuine concern. He seemed to be silently debating whether he should offer to administer the equivalent of a CPR procedure or Heimlich maneuver for embarrassed laughter.

After a few more seconds, not seeing an appropriate course of action, he turned to me and repeated his question. Did we have any books by the novelist Patrick White? He named two titles and said he would take either hardcover or paperback. His voice was slow, with a trace of a stammer.

Updike could not have known, but he had stumbled into one of those classic humiliating moments in American bookselling. A few weeks earlier, the Nobel Committee had announced that White had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to do so. White had written a bunch of novels, including The Tree of Man, Voss, and, earlier that year, The Eye of the Storm. The Nobel committee awarded White “for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature.”

For the book world, when any award is announced, public interest is aroused and book sales spike. But in this case, the award was unexpected. No one, at least in the American literary establishment, had heard of Patrick White. Bookstores were caught flat-footed. Worse still, White’s own publisher had not foreseen the award, so few copies of The Eye of the Storm were available to be ordered by booksellers.

I knew all of this, of course. What’s more, I knew for certain that our store didn’t have a single copy of a Patrick White novel, in hardcover, paperback, or sales remainder. Although I couldn’t always remember the birth dates of my own family members, I had an almost perfect geographical memory of every title in the store, and in an instant, I could visualize the “W” space in fiction and see the absence of a White novel.

Even with this knowledge, as I looked back at Updike’s earnest eyes, I couldn’t bring myself to admit to this great Man of Letters the special failings of the retail wing of the American literary enterprise. I didn’t want to become, for John Updike, the face of an industry too dim-witted to have on hand, for god’s sake, a Nobel Prize winner.

Also, more selfishly, I thought to myself: I’m going to search for a book for John Updike! Who cares if we don’t have it? 

So I escorted Updike down the store aisles to the fiction section, to the end of the alphabet, past the “U’s,” where I was happy to see a respectable selection of Updike’s own titles, faced out, to the “W’s,” where I feigned surprise not to find any novels by Patrick White. I probably suggested a few other neighborhood stores that he might try, but I tried to tamp down his expectations.

Standing there in the fiction aisle, I sensed an opportunity to say something to Updike. I wanted to say that I also grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania; that I thought “The Music School” was a great short story; that I never understood The Centaur even though I read it twice; that I learned a lot of great new stuff about sex from Couples; that I didn’t care that his politics were the opposite of mine; that I loved his sentences that went on and on and somehow yoked together the scent of a woman’s perfume, a poem by Ovid, and the nighttime sky; and that his stories were the kind of stories that I was trying to write. But I didn’t say any of those things, and, with him standing idly two feet away, I felt the moment pass. He smiled and thanked me, and I watched him walk out.

For the next few weeks, I looked in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books for Updike’s review of Patrick White, but I don’t remember seeing one. Perhaps he missed out on that month’s check for a book review, and we’ll never know what he thought of the Australian Nobel Prize winner.

Later I felt remorse for wasting three or four minutes of John Updike’s time. Given his limitless productivity, my little charade probably cost American literature at least one sentence, which is a shame since he could write sentences like this one: “And my sleep was a loop, so that in awaking I seemed still in the book, and the light-struck sky quivering through the stripped branches of the young elm appeared another page of Whitman, and I was entirely open, and lost, like a woman in passion, and free, and in love, without a shadow in any corner of my being.”

In 1973, John Updike still had ahead of him the rest of his Rabbit tetralogy, including the best of those novels, Rabbit at Rest, the wonderfully expansive In the Beauty of the Lilies, and scores of short stories, poems, books reviews, and essays. Although he would never win his own Nobel, he would win two more National Book Awards and two more Pulitzers, and keep on writing up to his death in 2009.

And me? The gentle art of bookselling lost its charm on a winter’s evening in 1976, when two junkies walked down the quiet street and into the store, and one of them, standing approximately where John Updike had stood a few years earlier, pointed a cheap-looking handgun at my head and told me to give him all the motherfucking money. A few months after that, I wrote a first-person account of the robbery, which was published on the front page of the Boston Globe, and sometime in the following summer when the Brentano’s corporate office finally pulled the plug on the little bookstore, I went off to try to be a writer.













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