John Updike came to Washington to promote a book.
At the recent BookExpo America, publishing's annual national convention, he dined under the dimmed lights and high ceilings of the Corcoran Gallery, sermonized against the digital future to an appreciative breakfast gathering and sat for interviews in a conference room that seemed as bare and isolated as a cabin in the woods.
He was here to discuss his new novel, "Terrorist," a mission he ideally would not have accepted. The three-day convention is a veritable holiday of hype and technology, but at his breakfast speech Updike spoke up for a time when books were written on paper, published without promotional tours and sold in stores, no two with the same name, that were (and remain) "citadels of light" in their communities.
"Books traditionally have edges, some are rough cut, some are smooth cut. ... In the electronic anthill, where are the edges?" Updike asked the audience, which gave him a standing ovation at the Washington Convention Center. "So, book sellers, defend your lonely forts, keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges."
A longtime New Englander, Updike is 74 years old and his literary prizes, including two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards, outnumber the books most writers dream of publishing. He is "old guard" and knows it, a male, straight Protestant author of white hair and pale-pink skin, dressed in a thin, olive-green suit, given to bashful grins and closing his eyes as he speaks, as if reminded of an awkward memory.
As much as any American author, Updike has defined the post-World War II experience, his "Rabbit" novels and other works speaking for millions blessed by the country's prosperity and startled by its social rebellion. "Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country," Updike once wrote of the 1960s, one of many passages that have placed him on the conservative side of the generation gap.
Along with his characters, Updike is distraught about the changing world, but still curious, like an anxious dad trying to communicate with his long-haired son. He calls "Terrorist" a "gesture of friendship," a novel about Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy, a New Jersey high school graduate whose disgust with the material world leads to his recruitment as a suicide bomber.
"I've often wondered about suicide bombers, because to a Western Judeo-Christian, it's pretty much a no-no, it's almost the ultimate sin," Updike says.
"And I'm impressed by not only the number of suicide bombers but the continued ability to recruit young men and young women. It's a measure of the depth of resentment and the sense of depression and helplessness that certain parts of the world feel about the West."
The novel is a change for Updike, better known for such Protestant adventurers as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom of the "Rabbit" novels, but not a clean break. Ahmad's spirit isn't far from the apocalyptic Christian sect of "In the Beauty of the Lilies," or from Harry Angstrom himself, who affirms allegiance to God even as he beds a woman other than his wife.
Ahmad is a young anti-American who hates like some old-time Americans. When he declares that "These devils seek to take away my God," he could be mistaken for a descendant of Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, a Puritan reincarnated and armed for the 21st century.
"I think certain of our Puritan forebears would find a great deal in common with some of the imams and mullahs," Updike says. "What we're facing in Osama bin Laden is really a revival movement, like the American fundamentalist movement is a reaction to liberalism in the church."
Updike originally planned a story about a young Catholic priest, but the narrative never advanced, and he instead imagined a Muslim. The tale is truly multicultural: Ahmad is the son of an Irish mother and Egyptian father, becomes attracted to an African-American girl and is mentored by a Jewish guidance counselor.
For "Terrorist," Updike researched explosives on the Internet, checked out the luggage screening machines at New York's LaGuardia Airport, visited neighborhoods in New Jersey and explored some mosques in Arizona, where he goes often.
Although hardly a scholar of Muslim culture, he is not without experience. He has traveled in Egypt and Morocco and read the Koran, in English, impressed more by its language than by its message. He wrote about the Middle East in the short story "His Finest Hour," and about Africa in a novel, "The Coup," a satire of post-colonial rhetoric.
"I knew when I wrote this (`Terrorist') that this was sort of thin ice, a touchy matter," he says. "On the other hand, as an American writer, one should have right to write about the world as best as he can and as variously as he can. That's why you have an imagination, as well as a memory."
Updike was born in 1932 in the Protestant community of Shillington, Pa., his mother a department store worker who longed to write, his father a high school teacher remembered with sadness and affection in Updike's novel "The Centaur." The author would brood over his father's low pay and mocking students, but also wrote of a childhood of "warm and action-packed houses that accommodated the presence of a stranger, my strange ambition to be glamorous."
For Updike, the high life meant books, like the volumes of P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley he would borrow from the library as a child, or, as he later recalled, the "chastely severe, time-honored classics" he would read in his dorm room at Harvard University, leaning back in his "wooden Harvard chair," cigarette in hand.
By 1959, when he was just 27, he was living in New York and had published his first novel, "The Poorhouse Fair," soon followed by the first of the Rabbit books, "Rabbit, Run." Praise came so early and so often that New York Times critic Arthur Mizener worried that Updike's "natural talent," his matchless vocabulary and descriptive powers, was exposing him "from an early age to a great deal of head-turning praise."
Updike won a National Book Award in 1964 for "The Centaur," made millions four years later with the adulterous "Couples" and ensured his literary eminence with the "Rabbit" books, four novels about suburban life that won two Pulitzers and remain markers for the decades (1950s-1980s) they cover.
"I remember reviewing a collection of his early stories and being swept away by the quality of each one, but I had one tiny, minuscule reservation: I felt his books lacked history. They were mostly about domestic life," says the author and critic Cynthia Ozick.
"Updike then wrote back, thanking me for the review, but he also said, `What do you mean, no history?' He was right. I hadn't been thinking about the `Rabbit' books. They really record what has happened since he began writing those books; every vibration of America is in those books."
Updike learned to write about everyday life by, in part, living it. In the early 1960s, he left New York, with its "cultural hassle" and melting pot of "agents and wisenheimers," and settled with his first wife (Updike has since remarried) and four kids in Ipswich, Mass. As he once wrote, he became "immersed in the ordinary," pleased to live in a town of free parking, good schools and "a church to attend without seeming too strange."
"I just accept the reassurance," Updike, who attends an Episcopalian church, told the AP when asked about his faith. "I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe.
"I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'"