I love the harmonies of the Beach Boys, the rush of air on the seashore, the heave and swell of waves, the sun going down on a blushing horizon, the full moon in sail on a starry night. And I love writers who can show me all this in sensuous, gorgeous prose.
From hot metal to cold type to online, newspapers have undergone two revolutions since the Cold War.
The news used to come hot off the press, the words set on stone.
It was a noisy business.
John Updike, Wilfred Owen and George Plimpton were all born on March 18, reminds the Writer’s Almanac. My favourite writer, the most celebrated First World War poet, and Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, which he helmed from 1953 till his death in 2003. I remember reading excerpts from Paper Lion, his book about his pre-season training with the Detroit Lions, an American football team, in the 60s.
But most of all I miss Updike.
The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.
Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.
Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.
The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.
Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.
A gay actor and his black magic
Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.
Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.
She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved.
Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.
Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.
It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.
It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.
The Terrorist by John Updike
India, not Iran, was the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses shortly after it came out in September 1988, reminds the Observer.
The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government banned the book under pressure from the opposition Janata Party. Both wanted the Muslim vote.
It was only then that a group of imams in Iran read a section of the book to Ayatollah Khomeini. We all know what followed.
This February marks the 20th anniversary of the ayatollah’s fatwa, calling for the execution of Rushdie.
Rusdhie lives but others have died, reminds Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair:
We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal.
I think it’s only decent not to hurt others’ feelings.
But this media self-censorship, as Hitchens calls it, has resulted in a dearth of good writing on a serious issue.
Few writers have written about Muslim terrorists the way Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John Le Carre explored previous generations of terrorists and spies.
I haven’t read Le Carre’s latest novel.
But I enjoyed Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, where he wrote about Kashmir and terrorism. A lyrical novel with a violent ending, it’s a thriller full of magical realism.
And there’s John Updike, who wrote The Terrorist. The September 11 tragedy inspired him to write a novel about a terrorist growing up in America.
New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy is the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide and aspiring painter and an Egyptian father who abandoned them years ago.
Ahmad is outraged by life with his mother who brings her boyfriends home and provocatively dressed girls at school. He seeks refuge in the strict teachings of Islam, but that makes him all the more angry about the temptations he sees. “Devils” is the first word in the book. (Time excerpted the first chapter.)
Devils, thinks Ahmad. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair…
The teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.
But he hides his feelings, takes part in sports and is a bright student. School counsellor Jack Levy wants him to go to college, but he says he wants to be a truck driver instead.
Levy visits him at home to talk sense into him. He ends up having an affair with the mother instead, dropping by when Ahmad is not at home.
Updike portrays the relationship between Jack and Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, beautifully. She is approaching 40, he is 62, with a wife with whom he still sleeps at home. They both know the affair won’t last, but that doesn’t prevent a growing intimacy. And, along the way, Jack begins to feel like a father to Ahmad.
But Jack doesn’t know the 18-year-old is being manipulated by his religious teacher, a Yemeni imam, who wants him to become a truck driver for a very specific reason. He plans to use Ahmad as a suicide bomber.
Ahmad readily agrees when he learns the plan. But on the day of his suicide mission, he is stopped on the road by Jack, who has somehow stumbled onto the secret.
Jack gets into the truck and tries to dissuade the boy. But Ahmad is adamant. He drives on with Jack sitting next to him. You can almost credits rolling across the screen as they continue their journey. The ending is very much like a movie.
Updike on The Terrorist
The problem with The Terrorist is its central character. Ahmad has a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. He won’t hurt a fly, refuses to have sex until he is married, and yet goes on a suicide mission to kill innocent people. But then who knows how a terrorist’s mind works?
Updike said when the book was published in 2006:
"I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system…
"I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith. The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world."
Jack and Teresa
And he certainly got Jack and Teresa right. They are ordinary people trying to do their best – he as a counsellor, she as a painter – as they age. They are far from perfect – he is cheating on his wife, she is an indifferent mother – but they are also good, honest and attractive in their own ways. We know Jack won’t leave his wife, Beth, and Teresa will continue to chase her dreams for the right man and as a painter.
And there is Updike’s prose. No one writes better than him.
Here Jack is watching Teresa – Terry – put on her clothes after lovemaking: