Henry Bech, the moderately well known Jewish-American writer who served as the hero of John Updike's previous Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982), has become older but scarcely wiser. In these five new chapters from his life, he is still at bay, pursued by the hounds of desire and anxiety, of unbridled criticism and publicity in a literary world ever more cheerfully crass. He fights intimations of annihilation in still-Communist Czechoslovakia, while promiscuously consorting with dissidents, apparatchiks, and Midwestern Republicans. Next, he succumbs to the temptations of power by accepting the presidency of a quaint and cosseted honorary body patterned on the Academie Francaise. Then, the reader finds him on trial in California and on a criminal rampage in a gothic Gotham, abetted by a nubile sidekick called Robin. Lastly, our septuagenarian veteran of the literary wars is rewarded with a coveted medal, stunning him into a well-deserved silence. It's not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task an indomitable mixture of grit and ennui.
At this juncture of his life, "semiobscure" literary writer Henry Bech (Bech: A Book; Bech Is Back) may be "at bay"?attacked by fellow writers, sued for libel, derided by critics, consumed by worry about his place in the literary pantheon?but his creator, Updike, is writing with undiminished energy and a bellyfull of chuckles. In five interrelated sections that move backward and forward through time, from 1986, when the 63-year-old Bech is again in Prague, to 1999, when he accepts the Nobel Prize with his eight-month-old daughter in his arms, Bech pursues his craft, an assortment of women, vengeance and peace of mind, veering between misery and elation, bathing in self-doubt or preening egotistically. Updike uses this opportunity to air issues besetting the arts in the 1990s?both the factionalism within the literary community and the dwindling interest in the arts without. Updike evokes Bech's Jewish persona with gusto, endowing him with a Yiddish vocabulary, self-deprecation, irony, guilt and a sense of being an outsider in society despite his acclaim. The most entertaining section, one step away from farce, is "Bech Noir," in which the writer, with the help of his young lover and a computer, systematically does away with the critics who have disparaged his work. Equally amusing is Bech's stint as president of an august literary society in "Bech Presides": Updike drolly implants recognizable traits of living writers in the members of the Forty, and extends the joke by interpolating references to Pynchon, Salinger, Gaddis, Sontag and others of his contemporaries. In this and other sections, he has fun reflecting the backbiting and jealousy of the "Manhattan intelligentsia, a site saturated in poisonous envy and reflexive intolerance." While not a "big" book for Updike, this is an insightful and amusing look at the American literary scene. Editor, Judith Jones; first serial to the New Yorker; simultaneous Random House audio.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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October 03, 1999
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Excerpt from Bech at Bay by John Updike
BECH HAD A NEW SIDEKICK. Her monicker was Robin. Rachel "Robin" Teagarten. Twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the short and solid side. She interfaced for him with an IBM PS/1 his publisher had talked him into buying. She set up the defaults, rearranged the icons, programmed the style formats, accessed the ANSI character sets--Bech was a stickler for foreign accents. When he answered a letter, she typed it for him from dictation. When he took a creative leap, she deciphered his handwriting and turned it into digitized code. Neither happened very often. Bech was of the Ernest Hemingway save-your-juices school. To fill the time, he and Robin slept together. He was seventy-four, but they worked with that. Seventy-four plus twenty-six was one hundred; divided by two, that was fifty, the prime of life. The energy of youth plus the wisdom of age. A team. A duo. They were in his snug aerie on Crosby Street. He was reading the Times at breakfast: caffeineless Folgers, calcium-reinforced D'Agostino orange juice, poppy-seed bagel lightly toasted. The crumbs and poppy seeds had scattered over the newspaper and into his lap but you don't get something for nothing, not on this hard planer. Bech announced to Robin, "Hey, Lucas Mishner is dead." A creamy satisfaction--the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by the toasty warmth--thickly covered his heart. "Who's Lucas Mishner?" Robin asked. She was deep in the D section--Business Day. She was a practical-minded broad with no