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  Reveiw of The Complete Henry Bech  
 
  Whough editors, masters of the bustling literary harbor, caution authors against writing too much about the "writing life," the vile secret is that writers love to read and write about other writers, particularly ones who have drifted into the windless shallows of public indifference, piled into the harsh rocks of alcoholism, or landed their chosen vessel on the legendary sandbar of writer's block. The truth of the matter is that the art and craft of writing rarely gives rise to particularly interesting stories, in most cases, and the golden age of young millionaire authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway indulging in rock-star antics has long since been plunged under the rising sea of television, film, and recorded music. As Jack Kerouac once remarked, if you want to be a writer, be prepared to sit on your ass for thousands of hours. That is precisely what Henry Bech, John Updike's literary golem, spends most of his time cleverly avoiding, insisting that he isn't blocked but merely "a slow typist."

John Updike, while striding as easily among genres and forms as any mid-century man of letters, is best known for his iconic Rabbit quaternary of novels, Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, strolling off with Pulitzer Prizes for both of the last two in the series. Rabbit, otherwise known as Harry Angstrom, is a classic middle-class WASP--tall, blonde, athletic, famed for his evasiveness, egotism, overconfidence, and, above all, dumb luck. The world revolves around the unliterary Rabbit, who, in the thousands of pages dedicated to his life, expends not a moment's energy reflecting on artistic matters or even the most minutely intellectual concerns. He has been described as Updike's right-hand alter ego, the unarticulated suburban American, floating through the bayous of life with as little oarsmanship as possible. This implies, of course, that there must exist a counterbalance to Updike's boorish creation, a left-hand, or sinister alter ego, one who incessantly grapples with such craggy affairs as history, truth, and his own soul, facing the rapids and being tossed about quite a bit as a result.

Enter the infamous Henry Bech, Jewish New York author, responsible for a handful of influential books in the sixties and seventies, a nervous and self-involved man who survives long years between books living off an ever-dwindling trickle of royalties and anthology rights, usually set at a disturbingly precise number, such as "$64.73". Bech, who regularly panics when out of his milieu, is a left-wing Manhattanite who bears the great weight of both aesthetic and genetic history with every thought (is he not, after all, heir to Kafka and Hasek? has he not also dropped his seed in the dirt?); he is modeled after a number of obvious figures, Mailer, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Roth, Heller, even Kerouac, Sallinger, and Updike himself. The Bech books, originally published separately as Bech: A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), Bech at Bay (1998), and His Oeuvre (2000), are awash with writerly in-jokes and brilliantly-plotted character nondevelopment (for instance, Bech's comeback best-seller, which takes a preposterously long time to complete, is an overwritten book gorged with words and ideas titled Think Big).

Since most of the literary moments that make up Bech's life were originally short stories, they serve perfectly as chapters when read in toto. Originally conceived as a one-off short story in the New Yorker, Bech was only permitted to live on after Updike (or was it Bech?) won the O. Henry Prize for the story. Since then, more than three decades have passed, and Bech, like Rabbit, has taken on a life of his own. Through the circumstances of Bech's life and loves, Updike is able to portray a characteristic life in American letters across those several decades (culminating in the hilariously-absurd dénouement when Bech, despite utter lack of artistic momentum throughout his life, receives the Nobel Prize, the elusive grail of aging writers worldwide). The new Everyman's Library edition of the Complete Henry Bech is quite pleasing as it allows one to read through Bech's life as if it were originally composed as a tidy novel of some 500 pages. It also allows Updike to finally put Bech to sleep, as he did Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit at Rest (though the last shovelfull was not cast until late 2000, when a two-part short story about Rabbit's offspring ten years on appeared in the New Yorker). May they both rest well, and may we be permitted to revisit their lives often and with sly reverence.
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