Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt

I can't say I ever read much of John Updike's work, but I would often pause if I came across his name somewhere. For some reason, I sort of grouped him with William Faulkner and Jack London in a line of noted American authors whose work I was not that familiar with. (As opposed to someone like John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemingway, with whom Updike might be more similar, but I'm more familiar with their work.)

So maybe all I really know about Updike is that he continued to write for The New Yorker all these years, and I'd see his byline and read the articles -- and the occasional work of fiction -- and appreciate that I had access to fresh material from one of America's literary icons. But then last week, as I read various reviews of Bruce Springsteen's new album, a few noted the ties between Updike's 1961 short story "A&P" and Springsteen's third track, "Queen of the Supermarket."

To me, the comparison ends with the narrators watching -- crushing on, as the kids might say -- a girl in the supermarket, though Updike's is from the point of view of the cashier, while Springsteen's is a customer's. Updike's story is quite good. Springsteen's song is crap. I just can't get behind it. Maybe he felt the need to write a song -- an officially recognized and released song, at least -- that begins with the letter Q.

While it's sad that Updike's time on earth has come to an end, it's interesting that it came on the day Springsteen's album was released, even if it had been available on NPR for a week. As he left this world, Updike was in the news again for something he wrote nearly 50 years ago.

And 50 years ago, he wrote one particularly gorgeous line, a series of actions as the story reaches its climax and a line that ends with nine wonderfully descriptive words:

One advantage to this scene taking place in summer, I can follow this up with a clean exit, there's no fumbling around getting your coat and galoshes, I just saunter into the electric eye in my white shirt that my mother ironed the night before, and the door heaves itself open, and outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt.

Rest in peace, John Updike.

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