Updike was in Ohio to give a reading at my university. I found him outside the bookstore signing books. There was a small line. We talked for a few minutes. That night I would attend his reading, which was held—where else?—in the gymnasium, with seats set up on the basketball court and bleachers rolled out. Where Rabbit Angstrom might have felt at home.

* * *

As a student at Lakeland High School I had wandered the stacks in the library, pulling out books with titles that seemed interesting, or with covers that promised sex. Couples promised this, and delivered. I read it furtively, seated at a carrel in a side aisle—or, at least I read parts of it. Even then I found the Protestant guilt unfathomable—but I thought I knew about sex. It was what we all wanted, it was the remedy for the poison of adolescence, it was what I knew was coming but couldn’t say when.

But I didn’t like Updike’s description of women. Not then. Or now. In Couples, his women seemed examples of a type—the repressed one with the big knockers, the carnal one who couldn’t get enough, the intellectual one who was a torrent of moods—and the wide hips, the thick ankles, the bowed knees, the blue spidered veins. He seemed to go out of his way to place these women in the most unflattering light, while, as a resisting reader, I wanted to backlight them and look more closely. At sixteen I had no more idea of middle age than my dog had of Proust, but the women he described bore no resemblance to the girls I watched in high school—Luann, my first girlfriend, Kathie, with whom I skied in Vermont, Louise the thoughtful cheerleader that I often saw reading in the library—were they all headed to this adult world of highballs and tennis matches, church choirs and country club trysts, the thick bodied, unsatisfied women of Tarbox?

* * *

LuAnn had approached me at a dance one Friday night. I barely knew her. But she had been watching me. She was dressed in blue and white and the gold of her hair. I was astonished to hold her in my arms (I had never held a girl). Our bodies swayed as the music crashed in waves around the polished wood floor and rattled the gymnasium windows high above us.

I understand that I never really recovered from that night.

All by herself, she introduced me to the mystery of girlhood. I saw no relation whatsoever between LuAnn and the women I read about in the library just down the hall from the gym, the women Updike described in his books.

I read Updike for the sex. Reading him I came to understand language’s power to create and sustain a fictive world. He showed me what was possible in fiction, gave me permission to write about sex and love and a thousand other things and allowed me to make discoveries, even ones that contradicted his own aesthetic. These words that I write come down the arm of a grateful man. Even today there are days when Tarbox, Massachusetts, seems more real to me than Columbus, Ohio.

Which brings me to his visit to Wittenberg University. The line was small and moved fairly quickly. Literary fiction, then as now, was not much in demand. It was a warm day, but he wore a jacket and tie. He looked up at me with a wry smile and prominent nose. In my hands I carried a pre-owned copy of The Witches of Eastwick. He asked me my name and what I wanted inscribed, and I told him. What I didn’t tell him was what I had learned of the errancy of desire all those years ago from my reading of his books, or how my views of middle-aged women had changed now that I had been married myself and had children of my own. I couldn’t have told him that one day I would spin the gold of LuAnn’s hair into a story about a girl named Lulu, a story ripped from a novel I could never have found my way to write if not for those lonely days in high school; me, reading.

Instead, I told John Updike that I had been writing a long letter to him since high school.

He didn’t miss a beat. He said, well, I imagine by now the postage would be daunting.


Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at BLIP Magazine (formerly Mississippi Review), and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown.  A former assistant fiction editor at Antioch Review, his fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have been published at Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, PANK, Westchester Review, TNB,  and other places. He is the author of four books in philosophy, including Future(s) of Philosophy: The Marginal Thinking of Jacques Derrida. He just completed his second novel, Leaving Telluride, set in Telluride, Colorado. “A Long Letter to Updike” is an excerpt from his memoir in progress.

 Illustration by Marc Snyder