Klegg the Drunk: John Updike on Raymond Carver

“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.