Friday, March 4, 2011

Review of the Day: Bech

Bech: A Book is John Updike's novel-in-short-stories about a fictitious American novelist named Henry Bech. It is the first of a trilogy, followed by Bech is Back and Bech at Bay. This first volume includes seven stories, originally published between 1965 and 1970, compiled in book form in 1970, along with a forward written by Bech, an Appendix of supporting materials, and a bibliography -- all part of the fictional story.

Henry Bech's first novel had brought him fame; his second a certain measure of artistic cache. But his third, five years in the writing, was an overambitious, muddled mess. He fleshed out this meagre bibliography with a collected edition of essays, reviews, and other "miscellany"; an anthology published in England; and a smattering of magazine pieces.

This mixed career made Bech a candidate for "cultural exchanges" sponsored by the State Department, and the first three stories find Bech in Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The next three focus on his personal life as a middle-aged bachelor trying to find his way during the cultural upheaval of the late '60s. The final story, "Bech in Heaven," sees the hero getting exactly the recognition he deserves.

Unlike a couple of recent stories-as-novel books (Olive Kittredge and Let the Great World Spin, for example), in which the connections get pretty thin, Bech actually reads like a novel. The stories flow in chronological order, following Bech through this fallow period in his career and personal life.

Perhaps the funniest part of the book is the ersatz bibliography at the end. Updike's parody is spot-on perfect, tracing Bech's career through early schmaltzy stories in The Saturday Evening Post ("Home for Hannukah," 1944), to articles in Esquire and The New Republic following the popularity of his first two novels; from critical acclaim for his first novel to critical condemnation for his third; followed by a few graduate studies theses, foreign criticism, and, finally, an article by Gloria Steinem in New York Magazine, "What Ever Happened to Henry Bech?"

Updike is in top form throughout. In a break from his usual themes of suburban WASP angst, he channels his inner Saul Bellow to create an angst-ridden, Jewish, New Yorker. And he pulls it off. The book is funny and touching and very masculine. Updike's writing is intelligent, but without gimmick. Bech is a reminder that a good book can edify as much as entertain.


If you would like your review of this or any other John Updike book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


This has renewed my faith in Updike after my somewhat disappointing run in with The Witches . . . and The Widows of Eastwick a few months back. I am working on reading all of John Updike's novels, but I find that I love some of them, and others leave me cold.

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