Okay, so I was in error when I wrote this post, concerning the death of celebrated writer John Updike. In the post I wrote that I had never read any of Updike’s work. This, I now realize, was an error.
See, I’d forgotten that Updike used to write for The New Yorker–especially the Talk of the Town section. Troy Patterson of Slate reminded me of this fact when he wrote in his take on Updike’s death that “It is possibly true that he was the best Talk of the Town writer The New Yorker will ever have, though saying so feels like a heresy against James Thurber.”
Reading that sent me scrambling for my copy of The Fun of It, a wonderful collection of the very best Talk of the Town pieces ranging from the late 1920s to the 1990s, edited by veteran New Yorker writer Lillian Ross. It’s hard to explain the importance of this book to me–I used to loan it to or just buy it outright for my writers. The Talk of the Town, the always whimsical, usually somewhat skeptical short pieces that run in the front other The New Yorker each week, provided a kind of model for the kind of journalism I wanted when I edited Maui Time Weekly.
Anyway, I thumbed through The Fun of It, and discovered that I had indeed read Updike–three of this pieces are in the book: two from 1956 and one from 1961. And I also realized why I’d forgotten that I’d read him: his Talk pieces, though intelligent and well-written, are also entirely forgettable. I mean, his “Rockefeller Center Ho!”, about his attempt to “plot a course from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center that would involve no contact with either Fifth or Sixth Avenue” is amusing, but his other pieces (most notably “Loverlee, Loverlee”, about the 1956 New York High Fidelity Show) are derivative of stuff Thurber was putting in the magazine back in the 1930s.
Stuff like his outstanding tour of the still-uncompleted Empire State Building (“The High Place”) and his–with Harold Ross–interview with boxer Jack Johnson (“Big Boy”). Thurber’s 1930 story on aviator/filmmaker/nut Howard Hughes (“Angel”) and his 1931 piece on painter Diego Rivera (“The Frescoer”) are similarly excellent and unforgettable. Here is Thurber on Rivera, so you can see for yourself:
We met a lady who, a year or so ago, sat with Rivera on a scaffold in Mexico City for nineteen hours. At the end of that time, night having given way to morning and morning to afternoon, she got up and started down the ladder. Rivera looked surprised and injured, and remarked sadly, “I have begun to bore you.”
Put another way, Thurber–by himself or with shared bylines–has 20 stories in The Fun of It. Updike has three. Clearly, Patterson was right: slighting Thurber in favor of Updike is heresy.