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
"You seem happy."
"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
"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
"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
[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
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
"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
"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
"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
"No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with
your mouth sagging open."
[CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Bech at Bay by John Updike. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.