Bech at Bayby John Updike
In this, the final volume in John Updike’s mock-heroic trilogy about the Jewish American writer Henry Bech, our hero is older but scarcely wiser. Now in his seventies, he remains competitive, lecherous, and self-absorbed, lost in a brave new literary world where his books are hyped by Swiss-owned conglomerates, showcased in chain stores attached to espresso bars… See more details below
In this, the final volume in John Updike’s mock-heroic trilogy about the Jewish American writer Henry Bech, our hero is older but scarcely wiser. Now in his seventies, he remains competitive, lecherous, and self-absorbed, lost in a brave new literary world where his books are hyped by Swiss-owned conglomerates, showcased in chain stores attached to espresso bars, and returned to warehouses just three weeks later. In five chapters more startling and surreal than any that have come before, Bech presides over the American literary scene, enacts bloody revenge on his critics, and wins the world’s most coveted writing prize. It’s not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task his signature mixture of grit, spit, and ennui.
New York Times Book Review
New York Times
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.
Bech Redux: I'm going to kill a woman I've never met. Kill her in cold blood.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm no stalker. Just an humble novelist. But if I do carry out my terrible intentions, John Updike will be to blame -- and all because of his new book, Bech at Bay. This latest installment of the literary adventures of the "moderately well known Jewish-American writer" Henry Bech is subtitled A Quasi-Novel." Ha! Just how "quasi" is it, Mr. Updike?
In the chapter titled "Bech in Czech," Bech has a sexual adventure involving a visit to Kafka's grave. "Bech Presides" finds the writer chairing an elite Manhattan literary committee, a scenario that provides numerous opportunities for Updike to indulge in gleefully outrageous literary rants: "Yes, women!" a character cries. "There are so many these days! Wise women! Elaine Pagels! Ellen Zwilich! Eudora Welty! We no longer need to swim on [men's] backs, turning our foolish broken hearts into song, that was what we did in my day." Reminiscent of the O. J. Simpson and Heidi Fleiss trials, in "Bech Pleads Guilty," Bech has his own experience in a Los Angeles courtroom. Then, in "Bech and the Bounty of Sweden," Bech actually receives the Nobel Prize for literature, prompting The New York Times to report, "The Swedish Academy's penchant for colorful nonentities and anti-establishment gadflies as recipients of its dynamite-based bounty has surpassed mere caprice and taken on, in this latest selection, dimensions of wantonness."
I have to tell you that I loved Bech's new adventures. But I live in New York and work in publishing. Will you enjoy Bech as well? Yup. Updike's calm wit is ever evident in these latest episodes. They have appeal far beyond the pearly gates of Knopf.
"So, Bowman," you say. "What about this dame you're gonna off? What's Updike have to do with it?"
There is a chapter in Bech at Bay I haven't mentioned yet, "Bech Noir." This is the chapter that is going to make a murderer out of me. It's nominally about book reviewers. I used to review books for one of the most prestigious literary commentaries in America. Then a new editor took over and the guy thought I was too weird. Can you imagine? He even gave an interview in which he said novelists like me were terrible book reviewers because we use kid gloves in the critical ring, whereas professional book critics never pull their punches. I decided to write a rebuttal -- novelists make damn good book reviewers. To buttress this claim, I interviewed the foremost novelist and book reviewer in the country, John Updike.
"I think I began reviewing around 1960," he told me. "It's getting on to 40 years I've been doing it." He then praised the literary reviews of another novelist, Henry James. "I find him invaluable, really, a wonderful critic with the voice of a man who's been there. He can see another person's novel from the inside, which I suppose is an advantage a novelist might bring to reviewing a novel."
Updike doesn't recommend book reviewing for everyone: "In a sense it clutters your desk with books that you would otherwise not read, and takes energy from truly pleasurable reading that you might otherwise do."
I then asked how he wrote reviews. (A general question, I know -- but I made it sound sophisticated.) "I tend to try to give the sort of review I would like to get," he told me. "Even if the review is not enthusiastic, it should show some signs of understanding what the author tried to do."
He then went on to say that the two novelists he has always reviewed are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. "I have given A plus to every book of theirs that I have reviewed," he said. What about other writers' books that turn out to be duds? "A person who thinks of himself as a creative artist does not write the kind of review that a professional critic, including The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani, does -- ready to weed the garden, pull up and cast away those unworthy of life and growth. You don't give that kind of alienating reviews to other novelists because it might be your turn next."
He sighed. "I could cite early reviews of mine that were harsh and unfriendly. Very early in my career I reviewed Franny and Zooey not very favorably on the front page of The New York Times Book Review."
Ha! So it was John Updike who turned J. D. Salinger into a literary recluse! I didn't say this, of course. Instead I asked if literary revenge was real -- that is, if novelist A gives novelist B's book a bad review, when A's next book is published, it will be reviewed by one of B's friends and panned. "I think that fear is real. The laws of war probably function in the literary world as in any other."
Four months after that interview, I read "Bech Noir" and discovered that the reasonable, gentlemanly writer I had spoken to has a decidedly darker side. In "Bech Noir," Updike's alter ego kills the book reviewers who gave him bad reviews. One reviewer is sent to the big sleep Agatha Christie-style, with poison on an envelope flap. (That may sound far-fetched, but novelist and former CIA agent Charles McCarry tells me that spies do this all the time.) Bech doesn't stop with just one critic. He goes after more. And the murders get nastier. "I'm going to shut you up," Bech tells his last victim. "I am going to squeeze this f****** trigger and rub you out. Don't think I'm too squeamish. I've killed before."
Now, I don't just review books. I write them. And as I savored each act of Bech's murderous vengeance, I considered a particularly nasty book reviewer who has been much on my mind this past year. She reviews books for a prestigious publication, though, of course, she's never written a book herself. I happen to know that this woman is cheap to waiters and cabbies. She kicks dogs. She votes for the politicians you and I despise. She is also the only critic in America who didn't like my last novel, proclaiming it too "nihilistic," because it concerned a group of armed nannies who shoot babynappers. She has obviously never heard of Dashiell Hammett or Sergio Leone. Women with guns are not nihilistic, they're hard-boiled.
Can you imagine the hellish joy I would feel watching that reviewer's little pink tongue lick an envelope flap laced with arsenic? Or how gleefully I'd bash the back of her head with a box of James M. Cain novels? (Before the blow I'd whisper, "I'm not being nihilistic...just hard-boiled." Then, thunk!)
Why am I confessing this to you? Because we all have our uncomprehending critics, that numskull who turns in the bad review or the substandard job report. But if, after reading Bech at Bay, you too are inspired to silence those nagging, critical voices, just remember: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. On the other hand, Updike has written 48 books. You can get a lot of reading done in stir (not to mention the nifty tattoos).
As for John Updike: Anyone who has ever given him a bad review better be on the lookout. He yacks like a gent, but he's got a Clint Eastwood heart.
David Bowman is the author of Let the Dog Drive and Bunny Modern.
“Witty, acute, and surprisingly affecting . . . Updike at his most interesting and engaging . . . Like the other books about Henry Bech, this is modest in size but generous with its rewards.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Bech at Bay is brilliant.”—The New York Review of Books
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Read an Excerpt
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
experience of culture prior to 1975.
"Once-powerful critic," Bech told her, biting off his phrases. "Late
Partisan Review school. Used to condescend to appear in the Trib
Book Review, when the Trib was still alive on this side of the Atlantic.
Despised my stuff. Called it 'superficially energetic but lacking in the true
American fiber, the grit, the wrestle.' That's him talking, not me. The grit,
the wrestle. Sanctimonious bastard. When The Chosen came out in '63,
he wrote, 'Strive and squirm as he will, Bech will never, never be
touched by the American sublime.' The simple, smug, know-it-all son of
a bitch. You know what his idea of the real stuff was? James Jones.
James Jones and James Gould Cozzens."
There Mishner's face was, in the Times, twenty years younger, with a
fuzzy little rosebud smirk and a pathetic slicked-down comb-over like
limp Venetian blinds throwing a shadow across the dome of his head.
The thought of him dead filled Bech with creamy ease. He told Robin,
"Lived way the hell up in Connecticut. Three wives, no flowers. Hadn't
published for years. The rumor in the industry was he was gaga with
"You seem happy."
"Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway."
"Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is
"Who said that?"
"The Lord. In the Bible. Wake up, Robin."
"I thought it didn't sound like you," she admitted. "Stop hogging the
Arts section. Let's see what's playing in the Village. I feel like a movie
"I'm not reading the Arts section."
"But it's under what you are reading."
"I was going to get to it."
"That's what I call hogging. Pass it over."
He passed it over, with a pattering of poppy seeds on the
polyurethaned teak dining table Robin had installed. For years he and his
female guests had eaten at a low glass coffee table farther forward in the
loft. The sun slanting in had been pretty, but eating all doubled up had
been bad for their internal organs. Robin had got him to take vitamins,
too, and the calcium-reinforced o.j. She thought it would straighten his
spine. He was in his best shape in years. She had got him doing sit-ups
and push-ups. He was hard and quick, for a man who'd had his Biblical
three score and ten. He was ready for action. He liked the tone of his
own body. He liked the cut of Robin's smooth broad jaw across the teak
table. Her healthy big hair, her pushy plump lips, her little flattened nose.
"One down," he told her, mysteriously.
But she was reading the Arts section, the B section, and didn't hear.
"Con Air, Face/Off," she read. This was the summer of 1997. "Air
Force One, Men in Black. They're all violent. Disgusting."
"Why are you afraid of a little violence?" he asked her. "Violence is
our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."
"Or Contact," Robin said. "From the reviews it's all about how the
universe secretly loves us."
"That'll be the day," snarled Bech. Though in fact the juices surging
inside him bore a passing resemblance to those of love. Mishner dead put
another inch on his prick.
A week later, he was in the subway. The Rockefeller Center station
on Sixth Avenue, the old IND line. The downtown platform was
jammed. All those McGraw-Hill, Exxon, and Time-Life execs were
rushing back to their wives in the Heights. Or going down to West 4th to
have some herbal tea and put on drag for the evening. Monogamous
transvestite executives were clogging the system. Bech was in a savage
mood. He had been to MoMA, checking out the Constructivist
film-poster show and the Project 60 room. The room featured three
"ultra-hip," according to the new New Yorker, figurative painters: one
who did "poisonous portraits of fashion victims," another who specialized
in "things so boring that they verge on nonbeing," and a third who did
"glossy, seductive portraits of pop stars and gay boys." None of them
had been Bech's bag. Art had passed him by. Literature was passing him
by. Music he had never gotten exactly with, not since USO record hops.
Those cuddly little WACs from Ohio in their starched uniforms. That war
had been over too soon, before he got to kill enough Germans.
Down in the subway, in the flickering jaundiced light, three competing
groups of electronic buskers--one country, one progressive jazz, and one
doing Christian hip-hop--were competing, while a huge overhead voice
unintelligibly burbled about cancellations and delays. In the cacophony,
Bech spotted an English critic: Raymond Featherwaite, former
Cambridge eminence lured to CUNY by American moolah. From his
perch in the CUNY crenellations, using an antique matchlock arquebus,
he had been snottily potting American writers for twenty years, courtesy
of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books. Prolix and
voulu, Featherwaite had called Bech's best-selling comeback book,
Think Big, back in 1979. Inflation was peaking under Carter, the AIDS
virus was sallying forth unidentified and unnamed, and here this limey
carpetbagger was calling Bech's chef-d'oeuvre prolix and voulu. When,
in the deflationary epoch supervised by Reagan, Bech had ventured a
harmless collection of highly polished sketches and stories called Biding
Time, Featherwaite had written, "One's spirits, however initially
well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended
reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of
watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very
little. The pleasures of microscopy pall."
The combined decibels of the buskers drowned out, for all but the
most attuned city ears, the approach of the train whose delay had been
so indistinctly bruited. Featherwaite, like all these Brits who were
breeding like woodlice in the rotting log piles of the New York literary
industry, was no slouch at pushing ahead. Though there was hardly room
to place one's shoes on the filthy concrete, he had shoved and wormed
his way to the front of the crowd, right to the edge of the platform. His
edgy profile, with its supercilious overbite and artfully projecting
eyebrows, turned with arrogant expectancy toward the screamingly
approaching D train, as though hailing a servile black London taxi or
gilded Victorian brougham. Featherwaite affected a wispy-banged Nero
haircut. There were rougelike touches of color on his cheekbones. The
tidy English head bit into Bech's vision like a branding iron.
Prolix, he thought, Voulu. He had had to look up voulu in his French
dictionary. It put a sneering curse on Bech's entire oeuvre, for what, as
Schopenhauer had asked, isn't willed?
Bech was three bodies back in the crush, tightly immersed in the
odors, clothes, accents, breaths, and balked wills of others. Two
broad-backed bodies, padded with junk food and fermented malt,
intervened between himself and Featherwaite, while others importunately
pushed at his own back. As if suddenly shoved from behind, he lowered
his shoulder and rammed into the body ahead of his; like dominoes, it
and the next tipped the third, the stiff-backed Englishman, off the
platform. In the next moment the train with the force of a flash flood
poured into the station, drowning all other noise under a shrieking gush of
tortured metal. Featherwaite's hand in the last second of his life had shot
up and his head jerked back as if in sudden recognition of an old
acquaintance. Then he had vanished.
It was an instant's event, without time for the D-train driver to brake or
a bystander to scream. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed,
malodorous mob. The man ahead of Bech, a ponderous black with
bloodshot eyes, wearing a knit cap in the depths of summer, regained his
balance and turned indignantly, but Bech, feigning a furious glance behind
him, slipped sideways as the crowd arranged itself into funnels beside
each door of the now halted train. A woman's raised voice--foreign,
shrill--had begun to leak the horrible truth of what she had witnessed,
and far away, beyond the turnstiles, a telepathic policeman's whistle was
tweeting. But the crowd within the train was surging obliviously outward
against the crowd trying to enter, and in the thick eddies of disgruntled
and compressed humanity nimble, bookish, elderly Bech put more and
more space between himself and his unwitting accomplices. He secreted
himself a car's length away, hanging from a hand-burnished bar next to an
ad publicizing free condoms and clean needles, with a dainty Oxford
edition of Donne's poems pressed close to his face as the news of the
unthinkable truth spread, and the whistles of distant authority drew
nearer, and the train refused to move and was finally emptied of
passengers, while the official voice overhead, louder and less intelligible
than ever, shouted word of cancellation, of disaster, of evacuation
[CHAPTER CONTINUES IN EXCERPT #2...]
Obediently Bech left the stalled train, blood on its wheels, and climbed
the metallic stairs sparkling with pulverized glass. His insides shuddered in
tune with the shoving, near-panicked mob about him. He inhaled the
outdoor air and Manhattan anonymity gratefully. Avenue of the
Americas, a sign said, in stubborn upholding of an obsolete gesture of
hemispheric good will. Bech walked south, then over to Seventh Avenue.
Scrupulously he halted at each red light and deposited each handed-out
leaflet (GIRLS! COLLEGE SEX KITTENS TOPLESS!
BOTTOMLESS AFTER 6:30 P.M.!) in the next city trash receptacle.
He descended into the Times Square station, where the old IRT system's
innumerable tunnels mingled their misery in a vast subterranean maze of
passageways, stairs, signs, and candy stands. He bought a Snickers bar
and leaned against a white-tiled pillar to read where his little book had
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
He caught an N train that took him to Broadway and Prince. Afternoon
had sweetly turned to evening while he had been underground. The
galleries were closing, the restaurants were opening. Robin was in the
loft, keeping lasagna warm. "I thought MoMA closed at six," she said.
"There was a tie-up in the Sixth Avenue subway. Nothing was running.
I had to walk down to Times Square. I hated the stuff the museum had
up. Violent, attention-getting."
"Maybe there comes a time," she said, "when new art isn't for you, it's
for somebody else. I wonder what caused the tie-up."
"Nobody knew. Power failure. A shootout uptown. Some maniac," he
added, wondering at his own words. His insides felt agitated, purged,
scrubbed, yet not yet creamy. Perhaps the creaminess needed to wait
until the morning Times. He feared he could not sleep, out of nervous
anticipation, yet he toppled into dreams while Robin still read beneath a
burning light, as if he had done a long day's worth of physical labor.
ENGLISH CRITIC, TEACHER DEAD / IN WEST SIDE
SUBWAY MISHAP, the headline read. The story was low on the front
page and jumped to the obituaries. The obit photo, taken decades ago,
glamorized Featherwaite--head facing one way, shoulders another--so he
resembled a younger, less impish brother of George Sanders. High brow,
thin lips, cocky glass chin.... according to witnesses appeared to fling
himself under the subway train as it approached the platform. ...
colleagues at CUNY puzzled but agreed he had been under
significant stress compiling permissions for his textbook of
postmodern narrative strategies ... former wife, reached in London,
allowed the deceased had been subject to mood swings and fits of
creative despair ... the author of several youthful satirical novels
and a single book of poems likened to those of Philip Larkin ...
Robert Silvers of The New York Review expressed shock and termed
Featherwaite "a valued and versatile contributor of unflinching
critical integrity" ... born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire, the third child
and only son of a greengrocer and a part-time piano teacher ... and
so on. A pesky little existence. "Ray Featherwaite is dead," Bech
announced to Robin, trying to keep a tremble of triumph out of his voice.
"Who was he?"
"A critic. More minor than Mishner. English. Came from Yorkshire, in
fact--I had never known that. Went to Cambridge on a scholarship. I
had figured him for inherited wealth; he wanted you to think so."
"That makes two critics this week," said Robin, preoccupied by the
dense gray pages of stock prices.
"Every third person in Manhattan is some kind of critic," Bech pointed
out. He hoped the conversation would move on.
"How did he die?"
There was no way to hide it; she would be reading this section
eventually. "Jumped under a subway train, oddly. Seems he'd been
feeling low, trying to secure too many copyright permissions or
something. These academics have a lot of stress. It's a tough world
they're in--the faculty politics is brutal."
"Oh?" Robin's eyes--bright, glossy, the living volatile brown of a slick
moist pelt--had left the stock prices. "What subway line?"
"Sixth Avenue, actually."
"Maybe that was the tie-up you mentioned."
"Could be. Very likely, in fact. Did I ever tell you that my father died in
the subway, under the East River in his case? Made a terrible mess of
"Yes, Henry," Robin said, in the pointedly patient voice that let him
know she was younger and clearer-headed. "You've told me more than
"So why are your hands trembling? You can hardly hold your bagel."
And his other hand, he noticed, was making the poppy seeds vibrate on
the obituary page, as if a subway train were passing underneath.
"Who knows?" he asked her. "I may be coming down with something.
I went out like a light last night."
"I'll say," said Robin, returning her eyes to the page. That summer the
stock prices climbed up and up, breaking new records every day. It was
"Sorry," he repeated. Ease was beginning to flow again within him. The
past was sinking, every second, under fresher, obscuring layers of the
recent past. "Did it make you feel neglected? A young woman needs her
"No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with
your mouth sagging open."
[CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]
From the Hardcover edition.
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