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Irwin Shaw, John Updike, and Donald Trump

So. I read more by and about Irwin Shaw. I read Shaw’s end-of-career collection of short stories and his most successful novel, The Young Lions, and also the excellent biography by Michael Shnayerson. I also read Adam Begley’s recent biography of John Updike, which was also very good, and it made be sad that probably very few people actually read it. Back in the old days, a major biography of a major writer would’ve had a chance of attracting some readers.

John Updike was a master of the slice of life and also created one very memorable character in Rabbit. Irwin Shaw was known as a “storyteller” but I’m not quite sure what that means, as his stories didn’t have such memorable plots. Kinda like a composer whose music is engrossing but at the same time has no memorable tunes. The guy was no John Le Carre or Stephen King.

In his New York Times obituary, Herbert Mitgang wrote, “Stylistically, Mr. Shaw’s short stories were noted for their directness of language, the quick strokes with which he established his different characters, and a strong sense of plotting.” Well put. Quick strokes. His characters didn’t come to life, but their situations and predicaments did. In that way he had a lot in common with Updike.

One thing Shaw did have was a combination of emotional sympathy, real-world grit, and social observation. Some similarity here with John O’Hara, but O’Hara’s situations always seemed a bit more schematic to me, whereas Shaw’s characters seem to be in real situations (even if they’re not, ultimately, real characters).

Updike and Shaw had different career trajectories. Updike started at the top and stayed here. Shaw started at the top and worked his way down. OK, even at the end he was selling lots of copies, but his books weren’t getting much respect (and, at least according to his biographer, they had some strong moments but they weren’t great; I can’t bring myself to try to read these novels myself). On the other hand, I’ve tried to read a couple of Updike’s later novels and I wasn’t so impressed. From my perspective, Updike redeemed himself by writing a lot of excellent literary journalism. As they got older, both Updike and Shaw reduced their output of short stories, maintaining the high quality in both cases.

Speaking of John Updike, if he were around today I expect he’d’ve had something to say about those rural Pennsylvanians who voted for Donald Trump. Being a rural Pennsylvanian. And John O’Hara, as a Pennsylvanian, and Roman Catholic, and an all-around resentful person: he would’ve had something to say about Trump voters from all those groups. Then we could bring in Lorrie Moore to explain Hillary Clinton voters to us. Hey, here it is—ok, that didn’t work: Moore doesn’t like Clinton. Hmmm, lots of people don’t like Hillary Clinton, but she did get 51% of the two-party vote. We’ll have to find some expert to explain those voters to us.

14 Comments

  1. oncodoc says:

    I was always struck by a sense that Updike didn’t like Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit is in many ways a caricature, and just like a caricature of a person overemphasizes some feature like Obama’s ears or Nixon’s ski nose Rabbit runs more, fornicates more, alienates his family more than real guys do. At least, I doubt that a get together with the daughter-in-law is common. Rabbit is wafted around by the social forces of his time. He does not act; things just happen to him. The protagonists in the other books seem more animated. Even Bech, a Jewish intellectual who is somewhat marginal in his own life, strikes me as drawn with more affection. Yes, he would have voted for Trump but not out of conviction. Rabbit has few convictions.

  2. numeric says:

    Everytime I see you praising Updike, I’ll rerun this (their refers to the greatest generation–see
    http://andrewgelman.com/2015/12/11/baby-boomer-as-all-purpose-insult/)

    The suburban milieu that Updike so tediously describes was their creation, with their divorces, infidelities, and otherwise self-absorption in materialistic acquisitions and their shallow emotional attachments. I think its a New Yorker thing (the magazine, not the inhabitants of that city, though maybe it applies to them also). If one reads the early Cheever, one sees that laudation of the same post-war environment that Updike describes, but eventually he gets tired of the whole thing (or maybe sees through it or maybe even he evolves–characters in novels are supposed to do that, so maybe authors should also). His more or less final word on the matter is Bullitt Park, where he finally seems to realize that the benefits of suburban existence come with inescapable costs (Hammer and Nailles personify this). Updike, wordsmith but not particularly insightful (except for introducing the blow job into American discourse), dismisses this work as “punchy”. I would say Updike never learned how to punch.

    • jrc says:

      As a Gen-Xer raised in the suburbs, I internalized the critiques of suburban living before I ever internalized any potential positive value to the life. Maybe that’s part of why we all moved back to the cities?

      Also might be why we like George Saunders so much. If Cheever managed to see through middle-class American populist nostalgia to some degree, The Semplica-Girl Diaries show us where we end up if we follow the materialism and status-games of our parents’ generation for another generation to come. It leads to a world where we are trying to love our family and end up becoming monsters.

      Mostly though I’m just using this as an excuse to say we should have a George Saunders thread some day. To me, he is the important literary critic of contemporary middle-class America (a critic who loves, but a critic). Note: we should also have a Cormac McCarthy thread, but that is off topic since Cormac don’t seem to care much at all about middle-class people.

    • Andrew says:

      Numeric:

      After reading that biography of Updike, I just feel sorry for the guy. So right now I’d just as soon be talking about Irwin Shaw. Or John O’Hara. But I have to admit that I find O’Hara not so easy to read. I like the idea of O’Hara but I find that Shaw and Marquand go down smoother.

      • numeric says:

        Not quite certain why you feel sorry for the man. He was rich, he had fame, and he had all the women he wanted (and he wanted quite a few). Rabbit’s American dream, and Updike’s also. Also, Begley doesn’t seem to find him him pitiable (which I of course haven’t read but a review is in https://newrepublic.com/article/119200/updike-reviewed-william-deresiewicz). I would say Updike’s main problem was that his works are immanentized (this is a word I wouldn’t ordinarily use but hey, we’re discussing Updike). Deresiewicz’s review claims he will be rediscovered but I have my doubts–Fitzgerald was buying up all the copies of The Great Gatsby in the early 40’s because the published was remaindering them, but Fitzgerald has stood the test of time, which, however cliched, is how we usually classify great literature.

        There is something about a common culture and familiarity that Updike appeals to–we both know (to some extent) what we are talking about. My (sole) claim to actually being part of this culture was my office was next to Saul Bellow’s for a semester (he was visiting the university I was at). Since I’m posting anonymously here’s my chance to claim we became drinking buddies and shared our views of literature and society over fine wines at the faculty club, but even under a nom de internet I find it impossible to dissimulate and must merely state, for the record, that we said hello a couple of times (I did have him autograph one of his novels which I have since lost).

        • Andrew says:

          Numeric:

          Updike seemed to have drifted away from his kids. That seems sad. Shaw’s life was more conventionally pathetic, though, I’ll say that.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          I saw Saul Bellow once at Stuart Brent’s bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He was dressed head to toe in superb English styles, probably from the Burberry store across the street. (Think Yiddish, dress British!) He looked like a Chicago civic monument and he really made my day.

          There should be some kind of law that other celebrities must do what Bellow did: dress exactly the way you’d expect them to.

  3. Steve Sailer says:

    I don’t believe I’ve read any of Irwin Shaw’s novels, although I saw “Rich Man, Poor Man” on TV. But I recently discovered Shaw’s entertaining short story “Main Currents of American Thought,” which is largely a fictionalized version of the young Shaw, during his days writing Dick Tracy radio serials, balancing his checkbook and reflecting on all the things he feels compelled to spend his money upon. (“Main Currents of American Thought” is a heavy intellectual tome he bought with a $20 check to Macy’s.)

    https://goo.gl/eHm2zN

    It’s a pretty fascinating gimmick for fiction. I believe Tom Wolfe borrowed it once or twice, such as in Bonfire of the Vanities in which Sherman McCoy reflects in detail on how he’s going broke on a million dollars per year income.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Neal Gabler wrote an article in The Atlantic not long ago about how financially strapped he is despite one of the, say, 250 most successful nonfiction writers in the country. I mentioned on my blog that Gabler’s article reminded me of Shaw’s short story about why he has an overdraft on his checking account despite selling 250,000 words of commercial fiction each year.

      I was just casting in the dark in citing Irwin Shaw’s short story as shedding light on Gabler’s article.

      But it turns out there is a connection: here’s “Nothing Fails Like Success,” a thoughtful 1989 L.A. Times book review by Gabler of a biography of Shaw, in which Gabler mentions “Main Currents of American Thought.”

      According to Gabler’s 1989 description, Shaw, like Clifford Odets, sounds a lot like Barton Fink: a lefty New York playwright accused of selling out to Hollywood. (Indeed, Shaw looks like a handsomer version of John Turturro.) But Shaw’s view was that he’d been rich and he’d been poor, and being a rich man beat being a poor man.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      “Main Currents of American Thought” is not my favorite Shaw story, but I do like it, and it’s as good as any to illustrate the point that his characters don’t quite feel real, but his situations do. (In this case, the situation of a hardworking young man from a poor family feeling the conflict between his hopes, dreams, and duties—which when put that way sounds pretty hackneyed but worked well in the actually story.) As noted in my post above, I think it’s interesting that people who like Shaw’s stories described him as a “storyteller” with, I think, the implication that his plots are what made his stories work. I don’t think Shaw’s plots were his strongest points, and I suspect what’s going on is that when people want to praise a fiction writer in a non-highbrow or anti-highbrow way, they’ll just go straight for the “storyteller” tag, without really reflecting on what is it that they actually like about the stories in question.

  4. jim says:

    Never liked Updike or Rabbit, but a few years ago heard Updikes “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” on Selected Shorts and granted Updike a partial redemption. Excellent writing and well read.

  5. Try the short movie of “Girls in Their Summer Dresses” with Carol Kane and Jeff Bridges. I think it’s on YouTube.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I don’t recall ever reading any Shaw, but instead of seeing the movie, I found the short story on the web (http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/dresses.html) and read it. I can see how it has characters carefully drawn, but it seems pretty blah, not very interesting, and the characters seem like stereotypes. It doesn’t inspire me to read more Shaw.

      • Andrew says:

        Martha:

        I wouldn’t quite call the characters “stereotypes” but I agree they don’t seem fully real. As I wrote in the above post, Shaw’s characters didn’t come to life, but their situations and predicaments did. But tastes differ. We don’t hear much about Shaw nowadays which suggests that many potential readers would share your view of his writing as blah. For that matter, we don’t hear so much about the other Shaw, the playwright, who’s another favorite of mine. Tastes change and the world moves on . . .

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