Klegg the Drunk: John Updike on Raymond Carver

John Updike the East Coast moral aesthete and Raymond Carver the West Coast drunken Everyman had more in common than met the eye.

The Complete Henry Bech

Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
Author: John Updike
Format: Hardback
Publication Date: 2007-06

Terrorist: A Novel

Publisher: Random House
Author: John Updike
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2007-05

“There were always books in one’s home back then,” the ripened, white-haired literary lion said, reflecting on his youth in the 1930s from the stage of the Writers Guild (WGA) Theater in Beverly Hills in the summer of 2006. “And there were magazines with words, not just pictures like today.”

John Updike’s appearance at the WGA Theater that evening came in the waning days of an exhaustive and expansive global tour to support and promote his (then) new novel, Terrorist, an underestimated contribution to the catalogue of 9/11 Literature.

The author, whose 1961 novel Rabbit, Run was featured in Time magazine’s All Time 100 Greatest Novels (published 2005), presented a weary and reflective visage when he settled his long, angular frame into a chair on the stage next to the host and moderator of the Q&A session, L.A. novelist and fellow social satirist, Bruce Wagner (The Chrysanthemum Palace, Still Holding).

As my eyes scanned the dimly-lit cavern of the theater, I mentioned to my host for the evening, novelist Diana Wagman, that the median age of the attendees appeared to be forty to fifty years, and quite a few of Updike’s peers in age were present as well. It was also, I remarked, patently absurd that a septuagenarian author of his standing and distinction (more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, and essays under his belt) in such obviously fragile health should be compelled to trot about the globe, hawking his book as if his name was an unknown, untested, commodity.

I was equally appalled at the banality and dull generality of the questions from the audience, exemplified by a man in his forties who asked Updike if he subscribed to the notion that “today’s literature is coming from writing on TV, like the shows on HBO and Showtime?”.

I cannot share the elder statesman’s reply to the query because, frankly, I cannot recall it, so angry was I at the vast stupidity of comparing television scribbling with literary fiction. But, looking back at that evening six years in the wind, I comprehend in the "rear view mirror", where the interlocutor was driving. He was of my own generation, an epoch nurtured on a steady diet of blockbuster movies instead of bestselling books; a generation of scribes who eschewed pursuit of the Great American Novel in favor of the Great American Screenplay.

For the first ten years of my professional writing life I toiled in the fool's gold fields of what my friend and colleague Rudy Wurlitzer calls “the celluloid trail”. One hundred percent of my word output was screenplays, both speculative and assigned work: a lot of movies that turn up on Cinemax and the Playboy Channel at three in the morning. The overwhelming majority of my vocational and leisure reading, despite an early catechism in journalism and literature, was devoted to fiction with maximum cinematic potential. Yet, no matter how diligently I strived to inject intelligence and a literary undertow into my screenplays, I always felt that screenwriting was to literature what Denny’s is to haute cuisine.

In 2000, after the contentious and prematurely-aging chore of writing and co-producing the award-winning feature documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, I deliberately strayed off the celluloid trail and returned to my original twin mistresses of journalism and literary fiction.

Unchained from the narrow focus of the movie business, I had the time and the desire to patronize the works of writers I had previously dismissed for their lack of cinematic appeal. The uniquely American novels of John Updike and the fascinating Chekhovian minimalist sketches of Raymond Carver were the first works I became acquainted with; two authors I continue to read at least once a year to this day.

It was with great delight, then, that I recently chanced upon Updike’s observations on his contemporary Carver, as voiced by the former’s irreverent literary alter ego, writer Henry Bech, described in the Everyman’s Library anthology, The Complete Henry Bech (2001), as “a Lothario, a curmudgeon, and a winsome literary icon all in one … an arch portrait of the literary life in America.”

Vernon Klegg, the Raymond Carver persona, appears in the Bech story White on White, first published in 1981, the same year that Updike was showered with the American Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Critics' Circle Award for Rabbit is Rich, featuring his other alter ego, Rabbit Angstrom.

In White on White, Bech awkwardly attempts to mingle at a swank Manhattan cocktail reception for a noted photographic artist whose new book, the sort of coffee table collectible that retails for one hundred dollars, features “finely focused platinum prints of a cigarette butt on a plain white saucer, a white kitten on a polar bear rug, an egg amid feathers, a naked female foot on a tumbled bedsheet, a lump of sugar held in bared teeth … [and] a white-hot iron plunged into snow.”

After greeting the hosts, Bech is “fighting to get his bourbon” at the bar when “like a fuzzy sock being ejected by the tumble-dryer there was flung toward Bech the shapeless face of Vernon Klegg, the American Kafka, whose austere minimalist renderings of kitchen spats and disheveled mobile homes were the rage of writers’ conferences and federal and state arts councils.”

“There was at the heart of Klegg’s work,” Updike writes, “a haunting enigma. Why were these heroines shrieking? Why were these heroes going bankrupt, their businesses sliding from neglect so restlessly into ruin? Why were these children so rude, so angry and estranged? The enigma gave Klegg’s portrayal of the human situation a hollowness hailed as quintessentially American; he was published with great faithfulness in the Soviet Union, as yet another illustrator of the West’s sure doom, and was a pet of the Left intelligentsia everywhere. Yet one did not have to be a very close friend of Klegg’s to know that the riddling texture of his work sprang from a humble personal cause: except for that dawn hour of each day when, pained by hangover and recommencing thirst, Klegg composed with sharpened pencil and yellow-paper pad his few hundred beautifully minimal words – nouns, verbs, nouns – he was drunk. He was a helpless alcoholic from whom wives, households, faculty positions, and entire neighborhoods of baffled order slid with mysterious ease. Typically in a Klegg conte the hero would blandly discover himself to have in his hands a butcher knife, or the broken top fronds of a rubber plant, or the buttocks of a pubescent babysitter. Alcohol was rarely described in Klegg’s world, and he may himself not have recognized it as the element that kept that world in perpetual centrifugal motion.”

In August 2006, two months after seeing John Updike at the WGA Theater, I packed my meager bags and left Los Angeles for the city of my birth, San Francisco, where I continued the task of reinventing my career, beginning with writing and producing a live theatrical event commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the scroll edition of Kerouac’s On the Road for The Beat Museum. Updike’s Rabbit, Run has often been recognized [even by the author himself] as the white, eastern, middle class answer to Kerouac’s paean to wanderlust.

In Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Updike revealed the impact that restless, immature, self-absorbed non-conformity can have on family and friends; the consequences and the detritus left behind by the proverbial family man who goes around the corner for a pack of smokes and never comes back. And in Raymond Carver’s works we visit the drab motels and dusty dive bars and honky tonks that await them at the end of the road.

It was more than cheap literary circle gossip that compelled Updike to paint his brief, stark portrait of Carver as Klegg the Drunk. The two writers had more in common than the casual reader may suspect and, briefly, Updike, the moralist and aesthete to Carver’s gruff alcoholic Everyman, acknowledged their bond and kinship.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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