Cover image for Bech at bay : a quasi-novel
Bech at bay : a quasi-novel
Updike, John.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1998.
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
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Henry Bech, the moderately well known Jewish-American writer who served as the hero of John Updike's previousBech: A Book(1970) andBech Is Back(1982), has become older but scarcely wiser. In these five new chapters from his life, he is still at bay, pursued by the hounds of desire and anxiety, of unbridled criticism and publicity in a literary world ever more cheerfully crass. He fights intimations of annihilation in still-Communist Czechoslovakia, while promiscuously consorting with dissidents, apparatchiks, and Midwestern Republicans. Next, he succumbs to the temptations of power by accepting the presidency of a quaint and cosseted honorary body patterned on the Académie Française. Then, the reader finds him on trial in California and on a criminal rampage in a gothic Gotham, abetted by a nubile sidekick called Robin. Lastly, our septuagenarian veteran of the literary wars is rewarded with a coveted medal, stunning him into a well-deserved silence. It's not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task an indomitable mixture of grit and ennui.

Author Notes

American novelist, poet, and critic John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 18, 1932. He received an A.B. degree from Harvard University, which he attended on a scholarship, in 1954. After graduation, he accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. After returning from England in 1955, he worked for two years on the staff of The New Yorker. This marked the beginning of a long relationship with the magazine, during which he has contributed numerous short stories, poems, and book reviews.

Although Updike's first published book was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), his renown as a writer is based on his fiction, beginning with The Poorhouse Fair (1959). During his lifetime, he wrote more than 50 books and primarily focused on middle-class America and their major concerns---marriage, divorce, religion, materialism, and sex. Among his best-known works are the Rabbit tetrology---Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1988). Rabbit, Run introduces Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom as a 26-year-old salesman of dime-store gadgets trapped in an unhappy marriage in a dismal Pennsylvania town, looking back wistfully on his days as a high school basketball star. Rabbit Redux takes up the story 10 years later, and Rabbit's relationship with representative figures of the 1960s enables Updike to provide social commentary in a story marked by mellow wisdom and compassion in spite of some shocking jolts. In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry is comfortably middle-aged and complacent, and much of the book seems to satirize the country-club set and the swinging sexual/social life of Rabbit and his friends. Finally, in Rabbit at Rest, Harry arrives at the age where he must confront his mortality. Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for both Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

Updike's other novels range widely in subject and locale, from The Poorhouse Fair, about a home for the aged that seems to be a microcosm for society as a whole, through The Court (1978), about a revolution in Africa, to The Witches of Eastwick (1984), in which Updike tries to write from inside the sensibilities of three witches in contemporary New England. The Centaur (1963) is a subtle, complicated allegorical novel that won Updike the National Book Award in 1964. In addition to his novels, Updike also has written short stories, poems, critical essays, and reviews. Self-Consciousness (1989) is a memoir of his early life, his thoughts on issues such as the Vietnam War, and his attitude toward religion. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. He died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009 at the age of 76.

(Bowker Author Biography) John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Since 1957 he has lived in Massachusetts. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, & the Howells Medal.

(Publisher Provided) John Updike was born in 1932 and attended Harvard College and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. Form 1955 to 1957 he was a staff member of The New Yorker, which he contributed numerous writings. Updike's art criticism has appeared in publications including Arts and Antiques, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Realites, among many others. He is the author of such best-selling novels as Rabbit Run and Rabbit is Rich. His many works of fiction, poetry and criticism have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. For the past 40 years he has lived in Massachusetts.

(Publisher Provided) John Updike is the author of some 50 books, including collections of short stories, poems, & criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, & the Howells Medal. Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932, he has lived in Massachusetts since 1957.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

As the protagonist ages in Updike's familiar cycle of novels about Rabbit Angstrom, so ages Henry Bech, Jewish writer from New York and "hero" of Bech: A Book (1970) and Bech Is Back (1982). Although being greatly put-upon is Bech's constant status, he continues to muddle through; in the last episode here, in fact, he is awarded the Nobel Prize. (Although the announcement is met with "a storm of protest.") But this crowning achievement is preceded by Bech's sinking to a new low when he inaugurates a campaign to "off" critics who have done his books wrong; however, Bech's fate is always up and down. In one episode, he goes to Prague, where he is valued as an important writer, and in another, he is sued for libel in L.A. for an inflammatory article he authored. The Bech books are not truly novels but, rather, short story sequences, and familiarity with the two previous books is only advisable, not necessary, since readers who have not read the first two do not run any risk of not "getting" Bech. He is here in the third book in all his frayed grandeur. Bech is Updike's alter ego, a mouthpiece for Updike's often sarcastic, even caustic, insight into writers and the writing life. (The role of Rabbit, Updike's other alter ego, personifies the author's obsession with social attitudes and sexual mores.) Updike's style is never more jubilantly elaborate than in a Bech book, and his intelligence never more provocatively displayed. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

At this juncture of his life, "semiobscure" literary writer Henry Bech (Bech: A Book; Bech Is Back) may be "at bay"‘attacked by fellow writers, sued for libel, derided by critics, consumed by worry about his place in the literary pantheon‘but his creator, Updike, is writing with undiminished energy and a bellyfull of chuckles. In five interrelated sections that move backward and forward through time, from 1986, when the 63-year-old Bech is again in Prague, to 1999, when he accepts the Nobel Prize with his eight-month-old daughter in his arms, Bech pursues his craft, an assortment of women, vengeance and peace of mind, veering between misery and elation, bathing in self-doubt or preening egotistically. Updike uses this opportunity to air issues besetting the arts in the 1990s‘both the factionalism within the literary community and the dwindling interest in the arts without. Updike evokes Bech's Jewish persona with gusto, endowing him with a Yiddish vocabulary, self-deprecation, irony, guilt and a sense of being an outsider in society despite his acclaim. The most entertaining section, one step away from farce, is "Bech Noir," in which the writer, with the help of his young lover and a computer, systematically does away with the critics who have disparaged his work. Equally amusing is Bech's stint as president of an august literary society in "Bech Presides": Updike drolly implants recognizable traits of living writers in the members of the Forty, and extends the joke by interpolating references to Pynchon, Salinger, Gaddis, Sontag and others of his contemporaries. In this and other sections, he has fun reflecting the backbiting and jealousy of the "Manhattan intelligentsia, a site saturated in poisonous envy and reflexive intolerance." While not a "big" book for Updike, this is an insightful and amusing look at the American literary scene. Editor, Judith Jones; first serial to the New Yorker; simultaneous Random House audio. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his 49th book, Updike returns with Henry Bech, the middling Jewish American writer he first introduced in Bech: A Book. This time, Bech gets an unexpected awardÄa Nobel. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



       BECH HAD A NEW SIDEKICK. Her monicker was Robin. Rachel           "Robin" Teagarten. Twenty-six, post-Jewish, frizzy big hair, figure on the           short and solid side. She interfaced for him with an IBM PS/1 his           publisher had talked him into buying. She set up the defaults, rearranged           the icons, programmed the style formats, accessed the ANSI character           sets--Bech was a stickler for foreign accents. When he answered a letter,           she typed it for him from dictation. When he took a creative leap, she           deciphered his handwriting and turned it into digitized code. Neither           happened very often. Bech was of the Ernest Hemingway           save-your-juices school. To fill the time, he and Robin slept together. He           was seventy-four, but they worked with that. Seventy-four plus           twenty-six was one hundred; divided by two, that was fifty, the prime of           life. The energy of youth plus the wisdom of age. A team. A duo.               They were in his snug aerie on Crosby Street. He was reading the           Times at breakfast: caffeineless Folgers, calcium-reinforced D'Agostino           orange juice, poppy-seed bagel lightly toasted. The crumbs and poppy           seeds had scattered over the newspaper and into his lap but you don't           get something for nothing, not on this hard planer. Bech announced to           Robin, "Hey, Lucas Mishner is dead."               A creamy satisfaction--the finest quality, made extra easy to spread by           the toasty warmth--thickly covered his heart.               "Who's Lucas Mishner?" Robin asked. She was deep in the D           section--Business Day. She was a practical-minded broad with no           experience of culture prior to 1975.               "Once-powerful critic," Bech told her, biting off his phrases. "Late           Partisan Review school. Used to condescend to appear in the Trib           Book Review, when the Trib was still alive on this side of the Atlantic.           Despised my stuff. Called it `superficially energetic but lacking in the true           American fiber, the grit, the wrestle.' That's him talking, not me. The grit,           the wrestle. Sanctimonious bastard. When The Chosen came out in '63,           he wrote, `Strive and squirm as he will, Bech will never, never be           touched by the American sublime.' The simple, smug, know-it-all son of           a bitch. You know what his idea of the real stuff was? James Jones.           James Jones and James Gould Cozzens."               There Mishner's face was, in the Times, twenty years younger, with a           fuzzy little rosebud smirk and a pathetic slicked-down comb-over like           limp Venetian blinds throwing a shadow across the dome of his head.           The thought of him dead filled Bech with creamy ease. He told Robin,           "Lived way the hell up in Connecticut. Three wives, no flowers. Hadn't           published for years. The rumor in the industry was he was gaga with           alcoholic dementia."               "You seem happy."               "Very."               "Why? You say he had stopped being a critic anyway."               "Not in my head. He tried to hurt me. He did hurt me. Vengeance is           mine."               "Who said that?"               "The Lord. In the Bible. Wake up, Robin."               "I thought it didn't sound like you," she admitted. "Stop hogging the           Arts section. Let's see what's playing in the Village. I feel like a movie           tonight."               "I'm not reading the Arts section."               "But it's under what you are reading."               "I was going to get to it."               "That's what I call hogging. Pass it over."               He passed it over, with a pattering of poppy seeds on the           polyurethaned teak dining table Robin had installed. For years he and his           female guests had eaten at a low glass coffee table farther forward in the           loft. The sun slanting in had been pretty, but eating all doubled up had           been bad for their internal organs. Robin had got him to take vitamins,           too, and the calcium-reinforced o.j. She thought it would straighten his           spine. He was in his best shape in years. She had got him doing sit-ups           and push-ups. He was hard and quick, for a man who'd had his Biblical           three score and ten. He was ready for action. He liked the tone of his           own body. He liked the cut of Robin's smooth broad jaw across the teak           table. Her healthy big hair, her pushy plump lips, her little flattened nose.           "One down," he told her, mysteriously.               But she was reading the Arts section, the B section, and didn't hear.           "Con Air, Face/Off," she read. This was the summer of 1997. "Air           Force One, Men in Black. They're all violent. Disgusting."               "Why are you afraid of a little violence?" he asked her. "Violence is           our poetry now, now that sex has become fatally tainted."               "Or Contact," Robin said. "From the reviews it's all about how the           universe secretly loves us."               "That'll be the day," snarled Bech. Though in fact the juices surging           inside him bore a passing resemblance to those of love. Mishner dead put           another inch on his prick.               A week later, he was in the subway. The Rockefeller Center station           on Sixth Avenue, the old IND line. The downtown platform was           jammed. All those McGraw-Hill, Exxon, and Time-Life execs were           rushing back to their wives in the Heights. Or going down to West 4th to           have some herbal tea and put on drag for the evening. Monogamous           transvestite executives were clogging the system. Bech was in a savage           mood. He had been to MoMA, checking out the Constructivist           film-poster show and the Project 60 room. The room featured three           "ultra-hip," according to the new New Yorker, figurative painters: one           who did "poisonous portraits of fashion victims," another who specialized           in "things so boring that they verge on nonbeing," and a third who did           "glossy, seductive portraits of pop stars and gay boys." None of them           had been Bech's bag. Art had passed him by. Literature was passing him           by. Music he had never gotten exactly with, not since USO record hops.           Those cuddly little WACs from Ohio in their starched uniforms. That war           had been over too soon, before he got to kill enough Germans.               Down in the subway, in the flickering jaundiced light, three competing           groups of electronic buskers--one country, one progressive jazz, and one           doing Christian hip-hop--were competing, while a huge overhead voice           unintelligibly burbled about cancellations and delays. In the cacophony,           Bech spotted an English critic: Raymond Featherwaite, former           Cambridge eminence lured to CUNY by American moolah. From his           perch in the CUNY crenellations, using an antique matchlock arquebus,           he had been snottily potting American writers for twenty years, courtesy           of the ravingly Anglophile New York Review of Books. Prolix and           voulu, Featherwaite had called Bech's best-selling comeback book,           Think Big, back in 1979. Inflation was peaking under Carter, the AIDS           virus was sallying forth unidentified and unnamed, and here this limey           carpetbagger was calling Bech's chef-d'oeuvre prolix and voulu. When,           in the deflationary epoch supervised by Reagan, Bech had ventured a           harmless collection of highly polished sketches and stories called Biding           Time, Featherwaite had written, "One's spirits, however initially           well-disposed toward one of America's more carefully tended           reputations, begin severely to sag under the repeated empathetic effort of           watching Mr. Bech, page after page, strain to make something of very           little. The pleasures of microscopy pall."               The combined decibels of the buskers drowned out, for all but the           most attuned city ears, the approach of the train whose delay had been           so indistinctly bruited. Featherwaite, like all these Brits who were           breeding like woodlice in the rotting log piles of the New York literary           industry, was no slouch at pushing ahead. Though there was hardly room           to place one's shoes on the filthy concrete, he had shoved and wormed           his way to the front of the crowd, right to the edge of the platform. His           edgy profile, with its supercilious overbite and artfully projecting           eyebrows, turned with arrogant expectancy toward the screamingly           approaching D train, as though hailing a servile black London taxi or           gilded Victorian brougham. Featherwaite affected a wispy-banged Nero           haircut. There were rougelike touches of color on his cheekbones. The           tidy English head bit into Bech's vision like a branding iron.               Prolix, he thought, Voulu. He had had to look up voulu in his French           dictionary. It put a sneering curse on Bech's entire oeuvre, for what, as           Schopenhauer had asked, isn't willed?               Bech was three bodies back in the crush, tightly immersed in the           odors, clothes, accents, breaths, and balked wills of others. Two           broad-backed bodies, padded with junk food and fermented malt,           intervened between himself and Featherwaite, while others importunately           pushed at his own back. As if suddenly shoved from behind, he lowered           his shoulder and rammed into the body ahead of his; like dominoes, it           and the next tipped the third, the stiff-backed Englishman, off the           platform. In the next moment the train with the force of a flash flood           poured into the station, drowning all other noise under a shrieking gush of           tortured metal. Featherwaite's hand in the last second of his life had shot           up and his head jerked back as if in sudden recognition of an old           acquaintance. Then he had vanished.               It was an instant's event, without time for the D-train driver to brake or           a bystander to scream. Just one head pleasantly less in the compressed,           malodorous mob. The man ahead of Bech, a ponderous black with           bloodshot eyes, wearing a knit cap in the depths of summer, regained his           balance and turned indignantly, but Bech, feigning a furious glance behind           him, slipped sideways as the crowd arranged itself into funnels beside           each door of the now halted train. A woman's raised voice--foreign,           shrill--had begun to leak the horrible truth of what she had witnessed,           and far away, beyond the turnstiles, a telepathic policeman's whistle was           tweeting. But the crowd within the train was surging obliviously outward           against the crowd trying to enter, and in the thick eddies of disgruntled           and compressed humanity nimble, bookish, elderly Bech put more and           more space between himself and his unwitting accomplices. He secreted           himself a car's length away, hanging from a hand-burnished bar next to an           ad publicizing free condoms and clean needles, with a dainty Oxford           edition of Donne's poems pressed close to his face as the news of the           unthinkable truth spread, and the whistles of distant authority drew           nearer, and the train refused to move and was finally emptied of           passengers, while the official voice overhead, louder and less intelligible           than ever, shouted word of cancellation, of disaster, of evacuation           without panic.                        [CHAPTER CONTINUES IN EXCERPT #2...]                                       Obediently Bech left the stalled train, blood on its wheels, and climbed           the metallic stairs sparkling with pulverized glass. His insides shuddered in           tune with the shoving, near-panicked mob about him. He inhaled the           outdoor air and Manhattan anonymity gratefully. Avenue of the           Americas, a sign said, in stubborn upholding of an obsolete gesture of           hemispheric good will. Bech walked south, then over to Seventh Avenue.           Scrupulously he halted at each red light and deposited each handed-out           leaflet (GIRLS! COLLEGE SEX KITTENS TOPLESS!           BOTTOMLESS AFTER 6:30 P.M.!) in the next city trash receptacle.           He descended into the Times Square station, where the old IRT system's           innumerable tunnels mingled their misery in a vast subterranean maze of           passageways, stairs, signs, and candy stands. He bought a Snickers bar           and leaned against a white-tiled pillar to read where his little book had           fallen open,                Death, be not proud, though some have called thee                   Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;                   For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow                Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.           He caught an N train that took him to Broadway and Prince. Afternoon           had sweetly turned to evening while he had been underground. The           galleries were closing, the restaurants were opening. Robin was in the           loft, keeping lasagna warm. "I thought MoMA closed at six," she said.               "There was a tie-up in the Sixth Avenue subway. Nothing was running.           I had to walk down to Times Square. I hated the stuff the museum had           up. Violent, attention-getting."               "Maybe there comes a time," she said, "when new art isn't for you, it's           for somebody else. I wonder what caused the tie-up."               "Nobody knew. Power failure. A shootout uptown. Some maniac," he           added, wondering at his own words. His insides felt agitated, purged,           scrubbed, yet not yet creamy. Perhaps the creaminess needed to wait           until the morning Times. He feared he could not sleep, out of nervous           anticipation, yet he toppled into dreams while Robin still read beneath a           burning light, as if he had done a long day's worth of physical labor.               ENGLISH CRITIC, TEACHER DEAD / IN WEST SIDE           SUBWAY MISHAP, the headline read. The story was low on the front           page and jumped to the obituaries. The obit photo, taken decades ago,           glamorized Featherwaite--head facing one way, shoulders another--so he           resembled a younger, less impish brother of George Sanders. High brow,           thin lips, cocky glass chin.... according to witnesses appeared to fling           himself under the subway train as it approached the platform. ...           colleagues at CUNY puzzled but agreed he had been under           significant stress compiling permissions for his textbook of           postmodern narrative strategies ... former wife, reached in London,           allowed the deceased had been subject to mood swings and fits of           creative despair ... the author of several youthful satirical novels           and a single book of poems likened to those of Philip Larkin ...           Robert Silvers of The New York Review expressed shock and termed           Featherwaite "a valued and versatile contributor of unflinching           critical integrity" ... born in Scunthorpe, Yorkshire, the third child           and only son of a greengrocer and a part-time piano teacher ... and           so on. A pesky little existence. "Ray Featherwaite is dead," Bech           announced to Robin, trying to keep a tremble of triumph out of his voice.               "Who was he?"               "A critic. More minor than Mishner. English. Came from Yorkshire, in           fact--I had never known that. Went to Cambridge on a scholarship. I           had figured him for inherited wealth; he wanted you to think so."               "That makes two critics this week," said Robin, preoccupied by the           dense gray pages of stock prices.               "Every third person in Manhattan is some kind of critic," Bech pointed           out. He hoped the conversation would move on.               "How did he die?"               There was no way to hide it; she would be reading this section           eventually. "Jumped under a subway train, oddly. Seems he'd been           feeling low, trying to secure too many copyright permissions or           something. These academics have a lot of stress. It's a tough world           they're in--the faculty politics is brutal."               "Oh?" Robin's eyes--bright, glossy, the living volatile brown of a slick           moist pelt--had left the stock prices. "What subway line?"               "Sixth Avenue, actually."               "Maybe that was the tie-up you mentioned."               "Could be. Very likely, in fact. Did I ever tell you that my father died in           the subway, under the East River in his case? Made a terrible mess of           rush hour."               "Yes, Henry," Robin said, in the pointedly patient voice that let him           know she was younger and clearer-headed. "You've told me more than           once."               "Sorry."               "So why are your hands trembling? You can hardly hold your bagel."           And his other hand, he noticed, was making the poppy seeds vibrate on           the obituary page, as if a subway train were passing underneath.               "Who knows?" he asked her. "I may be coming down with something.           I went out like a light last night."               "I'll say," said Robin, returning her eyes to the page. That summer the           stock prices climbed up and up, breaking new records every day. It was           unreal.               "Sorry," he repeated. Ease was beginning to flow again within him. The           past was sinking, every second, under fresher, obscuring layers of the           recent past. "Did it make you feel neglected? A young woman needs her           sex."               "No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with           your mouth sagging open."           [CHAPTER CONTINUES ...] Excerpted from Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel by John Updike All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Bech in Czechp. 3
Bech Presidesp. 37
Bech Pleads Guiltyp. 117
Bech Noirp. 152
Bech and the Bounty of Swedenp. 210