Authors: John Updike
Bech Is Back
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2012 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition
Copyright © 1978, 1979, 1982 by John Updike
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States by
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc. in 1982.
“Australia and Canada,” “Bech Third-Worlds It,” and “The Holy Land” originally appeared in
magazine. “Three Illuminations in the Life of an American Author” originally appeared in
The New Yorker
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Bech is back.
Contents: Three illuminations in the life of an American author—Bech third-worlds it—Australia and Canada—The Holy Land—[etc.]
1. Title. PS3571.P4B44 813′.54 82-161
Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © Davies and Starr/Getty Images
BECQUE (Henry) … Après des débuts poétiques assez obscurs … à travers des inexpériences et des brutalités voulues, un talent original et vigoureux. Toutefois, l’auteur ne reparut que beaucoup plus tard avec [œuvres nombreuses], où la critique signala les mêmes défauts et la même puissance.… M. Becque a été décoré de la Légion d’honneur en 1887
—LA GRANDE ENCYCLOPÉDIE
the author, in his middle years had all but ceased to write, his books continued, as if ironically, to exist, to cast shuddering shadows toward the center of his life, where that thing called his reputation cowered. To have once imagined and composed fiction, it seemed, laid him under an indelible curse of unreality. The phone rang in the middle of the night and it was a kid on a beer trip wanting to argue about the ambivalent attitude toward Jewishness expressed (his professor felt) in
. “Embrace your ethnicity, man,” Bech was advised. He hung up, tried to estimate the hour from the yellowness of the Manhattan night sky, and as the yellow turned to dawn’s pearl gray succumbed to the petulant embrace of interrupted sleep. Next morning, he looked to himself, in the bathroom mirror, markedly reduced. His once leonine head, and the frizzing hair expressive of cerebral energy, and the jowls testimonial to companionable bourbon taken in midnight discourse with Philip Rahv were all being whittled by time, its relentless wizening. The phone rang and
it was a distant dean, suddenly a buddy, inviting him to become a commencement speaker in Kansas. “Let me be brutally frank,” the dean said in his square-shouldered voice. “The seniors’ committee voted you in unanimously, once Ken Kesey turned us down. Well, there was one girl who had to be talked around. But it turned out she had never read your stuff, just Kate Millett’s condemnation of the rape bits in
. We gave her an old copy of
When the Saints
, and now she’s your staunchest fan. Not to put any unfair pressure on, but you don’t want to break that girl’s heart. Or do you?”
“I do,” Bech solemnly affirmed. But since the dean denied him the passing grade of a laugh, the author had to babble on, digging himself deeper into the bottomless apology his unproductive life had become. He heard himself, unreally, consenting. The date was months away, and World War III might intervene. He hung up, reflecting upon the wonderful time warps of the literary life. You stay young and merely promising forever. Five years of silence, even ten, pass as a pause unnoticed by the sluggish, reptilian race of critics. An eighteen-year-old reads a book nearly as old as he is and in his innocent mind you are born afresh, your pen just lifted from the page. Bech could rattle around forever amid the persisting echoes, being “himself,” going to parties and openings in his Henry Bech mask. He had his friends, his fans, even his collectors. Indeed, his phone over the lengthening years acknowledged no more faithful agitator than that foremost collector of Bechiana, Marvin Federbusch, of Cedar Meadow, Pennsylvania.
The calls had begun to come through shortly after the publication of his first novel in 1955. Would Mr. Bech be so kind as to consider signing a first edition if it were mailed with a stamped, self-addressed padded envelope? Of course, the
young author agreed, flattered by the suggestion that there had been a second edition and somewhat amused by the other man’s voice, which was peculiarly rich and slow, avuncular and patient, with a consonant-careful accent Bech associated with his own German-Jewish forebears. Germanic thoroughness characterized, too, the bibliographical rigor as, through the years, the invisible Federbusch kept up with Bech’s once burgeoning production and even acquired such ephemera as Bech’s high-school yearbook and those wartime copies of
in which his first short stories had appeared. As Bech’s creativity—checked by the rude critical reception given his massive chef-d’oeuvre,
and then utterly stymied within the mazy ambitions of his work in progress, tentatively titled
—ceased to supply objects for collection,
a little flurry of reprinting occurred, and unexpected foreign languages (Korean, Turkish) shyly nudged forward and engorged some one of those early works which Bech’s celebrated impotence had slowly elevated to the status of minor classics. Federbusch kept a retinue of dealers busy tracking down these oddments, and the books all came in time to the author’s drafty, underpopulated apartment at Ninety-ninth and Riverside for him to sign and send back. Bech learned a lot about himself this way. He learned that in Serbo-Croatian he was bound with Washington Irving as a Hudson Valley regionalist, and that in Paraguay
was the choice of a book club whose honorary chairman was General Alfredo Stroessner. He learned that the Japanese had managed to issue more books by him than he had written, and that the Hungarians had published on beige paper a bulky symposium upon Kerouac, Bech, and Isaac Asimov. On his Brazilian jackets Bech looked swarthy, on his Finnish pale and icy-eyed, and on his Australian a bit like a kangaroo. All these varied volumes arrived from Federbusch and returned to Federbusch; the collector’s voice gradually deepened over the years to a granular, all-forgiving grandfatherliness. Though Bech as man and artist had turned skimpy and scattered, Federbusch was out there in the blue beyond the Hudson gathering up what pieces there were. What Federbusch didn’t collect deserved oblivion—deserved to fall, the dross of Bech’s days, into the West Side gutters and be whipped into somebody’s eye by the spring winds.
The author in these thin times supported himself by appearing at colleges. There, he was hauled from the creative-writing class to the faculty cocktail party to the John D. Benefactor Memorial Auditorium and thence, baffled applause still ringing in his ears, back to the Holiday Inn. Once,
in central Pennsylvania, where the gloomy little hilltop schools are stocked with starch-fed students blinking like pupfish after their recent emergence from fundamentalism, Bech found himself with an idle afternoon, a rented car, and a map that said he was not far from Cedar Meadow. The fancy took him to visit Federbusch. Bech became, in his own mind’s eye, a god descending—whimsical as Zeus, radiant as Apollo. The region needed radiance. The heavy ghost of coal hung everywhere. Cedar Meadow must have been named in a fit of rural nostalgia, for the town was a close-built brick huddle centered on a black river and a few gaunt factories slapped up to supply Grant’s armies a century ago. The unexpected reality of this place, so elaborate and layered in its way, so El Grecoesque and sad between its timbered hills, beneath its grimy clouds, so remote in its raw totality from the flattering bookishness that had been up to now its sole purchase on Bech’s mind, nearly led him to drive through it, up its mean steep streets and down, and on to tomorrow’s Holiday Inn, near a Mennonite normal school.
But he passed a street whose name, Belleview, had been rendered resonant by over fifteen years of return book envelopes: Marvin Federbusch, 117 Belleview. The haggard street climbed toward its nominal view past retaining walls topped with stone spikes; on the slanted street corners there were grocery stores of a type Bech remembered from the Thirties, in the upper Bronx, the entrances cut on the diagonal, the windows full of faded cardboard inducements. He found number 117: corroded aluminum numerals marked a flight of cement steps divided down the middle by an iron railing. Bech parked, and climbed. He came to a narrow house of bricks painted red, a half-house actually, the building being divided down the middle like the steps, and the
tones of red paint not quite matching. The view from the gingerbread porch was of similar houses, as close-packed as dominoes arrayed to topple, and of industrial smokestacks rising from the river valley, and of bluish hills gouged by abandoned quarrying. The doorbell distantly stridulated. A small shapeless woman in her sixties answered Bech’s ring. “My brother’s having his rest,” she said.
Her black dress had buttons all down the front; her features seemed to be slightly rolling around in her face, like the little brass beads one maddeningly tries as a child to settle in their cardboard holes, in those dexterity-teasing toys that used to come with Cracker Jack.
“Could you tell him Henry Bech is here?”
Without another word, and without admitting him to the house, she turned away. Federbusch was so slow to arrive, Bech supposed that his name had not been conveyed correctly, or that the collector could not believe that the object of fifteen years of devotion had miraculously appeared in person.
But Federbusch, when he came at last, knew quite well who Bech was. “You look older than on your chackets,” he said, offering a wan smile and a cold, hard handshake.