John Updike is my neighbor. He lives just across the park, in the half-block of brick condos, each urbanely fused to its neighbor, each yard a tight rectangle of sod. John Updike has a little white dog, one of those lap dogs. I think it’s a Westie.
He sits out on a bench in his front yard—the bench occupies practically the whole yard—and surveys us across the street, in the park, where we, the young, let our dogs mingle. The park is this half-bowl that leans into a hill, and from us with our dogs there is a straight sight line to where he sits on the bench. I have not talked to John Updike. He seems rather vaguely pissed off at me, or at people like me, with our mutty labs and Weimaraners and Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds that terrorize the park, the dusty bowl a veritable dog-rodeo at the end of each workday. We are the same people who pace the sidewalks of this neighborhood, letting our dogs shit on all that closely guarded grass. When I walk by his condo, I can feel him glare and then turn away, as if I’m not even worth a sneer. This neighborhood’s still on the upswing of gentrification. Apartments are morphing into condos everyday, the rents doubling, the copper gutters going up up up. In a year we’ll be out, off to cheaper pastures, off to Crestwood, where hipsters go to die. I have no idea how long John Updike has lived here, in my town.
Philip Roth works out at my gym. Sometimes I have to wait for him to get off the leg press. Our workouts tend to overlap—Saturday mornings, Thursday afternoons, whenever. I have not spoken to Philip Roth. How could I? A hateful glare would be a kindness. I wonder if he knows about John Updike. I’m pretty sure Philip Roth doesn’t do dogs.
In a way, it’s funny that Philip Roth should work out at my gym, which—without giving you way more demographic data than you want—is basically about as goy as you can possibly get, the WASP epicenter of what is an overwhelmingly WASP town. (Could this place be any more goyish? I ask myself when I see him.) But Philip Roth is, notably, not working out at the Jewish community center across town, which is much nicer than my gym. And it feels appropriate for him to be here, sweating among the fallen yuppies, the college kids on the lam from school, the young unworking mothers intently toning, the junior attorneys who speed here from the office and change into their frayed fraternity T-shirts. It feels appropriate that he should not talk to anyone, that he should not engage in our chatter, which is one part foreplay, two parts 8th-grade P.E. It feels appropriate that he should never serve as or request a spotter. It feels appropriate that he should be as monastic and forthright with his workout as he is with his writing. But probably most of all, it feels appropriate that Philip Roth should bench considerably more than me.
Saul Bellow works at my school. I see him mostly in the mornings, and sometimes on TV. They put him on for scholastic color commentary—he’s a dean, naturally—and he’s always rakishly charming, old but still dangerous, withered but still virile. In the mornings he strides in late. I see him across the quad, walking fast but without the heat of stress. His collar is loose. His cuffs are unbuttoned; they gape groggily from his coat sleeve holes. His tie lies like a ribbon around his neck, waiting for the Four In Hand. People don’t call him by his name. He is simply The Dean. He doesn’t speak to anyone as he walks, only smiles and nods, and everyone loves him. The administrative assistants act like a harem.
John Updike’s face has not changed so much. Through the years, as the hair has grayed and the ears have slightly elongated, his face has remained a beacon of confidence and happiness. His face is that of the favorite son. All of his charisma and accomplishment seem caught up in his nose and in his eyebrows. They each hold his secrets: the brows are furious with hair, each filament clamoring for attention, a symbol of his primordial industriousness; the nose, on the other hand, is a refined fin. He has gotten more sharkish in his old age and acquired the sharpened nose of a professional’s professional.
© Archive Photos
Roth’s face has thinned with age. It’s no longer the full flesh of a 1962 Naomi Savage postcard I have, where his hair and his shirt bleed into the black background so that only his face is visible, young and glowing and horribly talented. In the photo, his face has the close-lipped certainty of a man on a mission. Now, his face is more wolfish, his whole body rangier, the Adam’s Apple just another protruding joint, a knuckle in the neck. He never smiles in his photos, just stares down the camera with a pitiful look, that is, full of pity for the camera, the spectator, those needy voyeurs out there in the audience. It’s a face that withers.
© Naomi Savage
Bellow is always all smiles. As I type this, on my aging Compaq, a picture of Bellow smiling above his Royal benevolently keeps watch. Bellow is the happy father. I have another picture somewhere in my files—like the FBI, yes, I’ve got files—of Bellow on the subway, dapper in an overcoat and suit and hat, among the mortals, a man about town, a man of the town. This town has made this man. Surely, the graphic artists had Bellow in mind when they began to create those large poster portraits that are in fact mosaics of smaller portraits. In Bellow, the faces of a city—that liar, this schemer, that saint.
And Bellow is there on the back flap of the Collected Stories, the one with the snow-covered car on the front. He’s unbelievably old, with proud yellow teeth, his face like something left out in the rain. He’s in a black hat and leather jacket, his collar kicked up, laughing. No distended gut and suspenders for him. No sportscoat saved from 1976. At the time of the photo Bellow had just had his fourth child, born by his fifth wife. It must feel good to feel so good.
Once, as a counselor at camp, I was repeatedly mistaken for Chandler Bing, the character played by Matthew Perry on Friends. More than one camper tugged my arm to say how much I looked like Chandler, so much so that they simply forgot my name.
I don’t think I look anything like him, I’d say.
You don’t? You’re totally Chandler. It’s your face, your voice, the way you make jokes.
But that’s not him, I’d say. That’s me. I’m just being me.
Come on, they’d say. Could you be any more like Chandler?
Campers, once convinced, tend to be hard to unconvince.
I think about John Updike a good bit, but especially when walking my dog. I think about telling John Updike about John Updike. I imagine crossing the threshold of the small lawn and saying, John, you look so much like John.
I can in my saner moments admit that this is not John Updike.
But it doesn’t take away the urge to confront him, to bring him books, pictures, to teach him about himself. I want to bring the Everyman’s Library edition of Rabbit Angstrom and say, Feel this. This is your body given up to you. Read this in remembrance of yourself. But what if he still doesn’t understand?
Would Philip—in my head, yes, I call him Philip—understand the importance of Nathan Zuckerman, his double’s double? Roth’s mind’s own man? Would he look at the latest press photo and say, I’m much younger than that old man, and amble off to the showers?
Bellow, I’m sure, wouldn’t cotton to my presence. I couldn’t even get a meeting with Bellow—I’m sorry. The Dean is too busy to see you right now.
They wouldn’t want to hear from me no matter what I said. No one wants to hear that they’re a carbon copy of someone else. I didn’t.
Once, taking guitar lessons, I kept playing little riffs and songlets I’d come up with, and my teacher would listen to a few bars, and say, Oh yeah, you know what that is, don’t you? That’s—and then he’d go on to play the rest of my song, i.e., someone else’s. This was infuriating. Look, I wanted to tell him, this is not someone else’s song. Don’t confuse the ineluctable modality of the individual. This is completely mine; this half song is my creation, no one else’s. Don’t confuse my originality with someone else’s.
And to be sure, if I drove you around town to prove my little Updike/Roth/Bellow thesis, you’d point out how they don’t look exactly like their doppelgangers, how they don’t even look enough alike. Perhaps I’m like Hermann in Nabokov’s Despair, manufacturing a twin. Besides, no carbon copy is perfect. There are always smudges. There are always some impressions that don’t come through, some accidental creasings and pin points that do. There is always that sinful inky odor, as if the carbons know that they and you are committing something unholy.
But maybe there really are multiple Philip Roths out there. Perhaps, rather than postmodern narrative trickery, rather than endless variations on a biographical theme, the Philip Roth that we know is just one of many. Perhaps the Philip Roth we know is simply the best Philip, the most talented Philip, the Philip that partakes of the most genius. Perhaps these three, the “real” three, are simply better at being themselves than all the other John Updikes or Philip Roths or Saul Bellows out there, who ended up selling life insurance or fitting braces or whatever.
And what if Chandler Bing is simply a poor, pre-heated version of me, and I am the real me, the best me, the only me that can fulfill all the me-potential in the world? What if Chandler Bing was an opening act for my me-ness?
Oh, I like this idea. Call that camper. Get the guitar teacher on the phone. You haven’t heard the last of me, I’ll tell them. You’ve only heard the premonition of me. I’ve seen the real triumvirate and I’ve seen their shadows—I’ve lived with their shadows!—and I’m moving out, I’m moving up, I’m moving into the light, I’m getting a new neighborhood. Oh, you’re going to be seeing so much more of me.
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