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Chasing Updike

My one meeting, some years ago, with my hero John Updike involved a very small bit of boldness, which turned out well in its modest way. It took place not long after my first novel Revelation had come out. I wrote about the incident at the time for a Research Triangle newspaper. I’m “the local novelist” of the story. Here it is, in memory of an extraordinary writer who died last week:

Author Mobbed, Politely

The afternoon book signing had been underway for twenty-five minutes, and the line was now stretched, more than two hundred strong, from the deep recesses of Duke’s Gothic Bookshop across the wide traffic area inside the Bryan Student Center.

Seated in the back of the store was the focus of this throng, John Updike, signing copies of his books.

As the line moved slowly into the store, a local novelist, proud author of one published book, arrived to take her place in the waiting crowd. Ten minutes passed before the line appeared to move at all.

People waited quietly, many of them reading. The line inched forward as Updike fans continued to arrive, some with big sacks of his books. The local novelist carried in her stack a copy of her own book to give to her longtime hero. She and Updike were inextricably linked, she knew: Her own writing had been compared with his in many of her book’s reviews.

An hour passed. People began to check their watches more often. The glass doors of the store were still several feet away.

A store official came out and warned: He probably won’t get to you. More than one hundred remained, politely refusing to hear any such thing.

The local novelist did make it through the doors. Updike was in clear view now, his famous beak of a nose and his great pile of silver hair. Then, as those nearest watched, Updike stood up and left, vanished out the back door.

The local novelist turned to find that behind her was an equally disappointed local poet who had brought a volume of his own to offer as a gift.

The crowd broke for dinner, then reassembled later in front of Page Auditorium, to wait an hour to get good seats for the reading.

Updike read and talked to a crowded house. He was witty, hyperintelligent, genuine–everything that the assembled body had come to hear. Then he finished and left the stage. Again the chance to meet him had passed–until one student raced up onto the stage and back into the wings and was quickly followed by dozens more.

Good-humoredly, Updike started signing books again. Again the line moved slowly. Finally the local novelist stood before the long-awaited Updike–just as a student official interrupted, saying, “I’m sorry. We have to clear the stage.”

The local novelist, about to miss out the second time, was suddenly wild-eyed. She shoved her book at the surprised Updike with both hands. “Here,” she said. “This is a present. I wrote this.”

Updike stared for a moment and blinked. “Follow me,” he said.

“Keep your place in line,” he called out to the whole crowd, “and follow me.”

Single file then, Pied Piper-style, he led several dozen people in a circuitous route, out through the wings, down the flight of steps, out of the auditorium, across a stretch of campus, back into the student center. The line followed him faithfully as he searched for a place to sit.

Then the line waited again. Updike signed more books. He accepted the book, finally, from the local novelist, who forgot to mention their intertwined fates. He accepted the volume of verse from the poet. At 10 p.m. the crowd dispersed for the last time, six hours after it had begun to form. Fans of a different sort might have rioted. But for these New Yorker-reading groupies, gathered to honor a novelist of marriage, manners, and morals, a ruckus like that never would have done.

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Categories: boldness, persistence, role models, Updike

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