John Updike was afraid of ghosts until he was 65.
“Why 65?” I ask in astonishment—why not 35, 55?
“Well, I don’t know, I just outgrew it suddenly! I’d been in enough houses and been through enough nights that I felt for sure the odds were that there were no evil spirits out against me.”
I feel a twinge of guilt; I might be such a spirit. The Widows of Eastwick, Updike’s latest book, the sequel to his 1984 best seller The Witches of Eastwick, has left me cold. The original was such a dazzling jolt of black comedy, so pure in its malice and pointed in its satire, that the news of a follow-up seemed to promise a great deal; and yet this new book felt stuck, slack.
In tan trousers, perched on his hotel suite’s elegant sofa, Updike, 76, is at once gracious and blunt in response to my couched criticisms. He describes his decision to revisit his old hit as “more crass than it ought to be.” None of his books were intended to have sequels, he points out: not Rabbit, Run and not the wonderfully funny Bech: A Book, each of which led to a series of successful sequels. And when he reread The Witches of Eastwick, he felt pleasantly surprised at its energy and inventiveness, finding “the author was really at home with this material and felt keenly about it.” That ghostly fictional world, those three vivid characters, seemed “live enough to think it would be good for one more ride.”
Updike has spent much of his long career perfecting a certain breed of anti-hero: the hyperobservant, resentful, libidinous fifties-era male who uses sex as a ballast against his diminishing status. It’s a theme he shares with Philip Roth and Norman Mailer (not to mention Woody Allen and Hugh Hefner), and yet Updike’s elegant prose set him apart. For many decades, he was the American bard of infidelity, a Puritan dirty-book writer whose beaky handsomeness was everywhere—the Wasp schnoz; the thatch of white hair; the curious, amused features. His worlds were stained with Christian guilt, his tone lyrical rather than pugilistic. On the cover of Time in 1968 for Couples, he hovered in that heavenly spot between literary genius and mass-market phenomenon, an avatar for the national struggle to reconcile stability and freedom.
The Witches of Eastwick marked Updike’s first attempt to delve deeply into female psychology. Like his peers, Updike had been taken to task for sexism. But unlike them, he “rose to the bait” over the years, he tells me with a certain satirical opacity. “People of my age are raised to be, sort of, chauvinists. To expect women to do the laundry and—it’s terrible! I’m making you cry, almost! But I’m eager to correct that as a writer, more than as a person. As a person, we always have chauvinistic assumptions. But a writer is supposed to be open to the world, and wise, and generous.”
Witches was not Updike’s only experiment with writing from a woman’s perspective; he’s done so in books including S. and Seek My Face. These experiments were not unpleasant. “To a misogynist,” he notes drily, “it’s bliss to write from a woman’s point of view.”
Yet The Witches remains the most successful of these gambits, a poignant, nasty, hilarious, filthy parable—written in the eighties and set in the late sixties—about the dangers of free women. “The era in which I wrote it was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world,” recalls Updike, waggling the antennae of his eyebrows. “There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.”
In essence, in his attempt to pay heed to his feminist critics, Updike bridled instead, producing a different type of achievement: a genuinely great misogynist novel, an explosive mix of empathy and malice. The witches in question are Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, a coven of divorced mothers in a small New England town. The trio sleep with married men; they neglect their children and drift into orgies with the devil—who arrives in the form of a pushy New Yorker, Darryl van Horne, with a taste for Pop Art and a hot-tub-equipped mansion. But they also possess a real charisma, an anti-heroic force, their spells a springy metaphor for sex, for art, for freedom, for all the possibilities of the self detached from devotion to others.