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A number of the Bech stories—there are nineteen altogether—are satirical portraits of the American celebrity writer abroad. Like almost every writer of note during the Cold War years, Updike must have gone on his share of cultural exchange visits behind the Iron Curtain and to hotbeds of anti-Americanism in the Third World; and so does Henry Bech, usually to gently comic effect. There was a puzzling duplication of suitcase sections; each displayed the same squarish mountain of dark cardboard boxes, and each pouting princess respond with negative insouciance to [his] request for a leather suitcase.
Also he had said that, having visited the Communist world, he could not share radical illusions about it and could not wish upon Vietnamese peasants a system he would not wish upon himself. Though it was what he honestly thought, he was sorry he had said it. But then, in a way, he was sorry he had ever said anything, on anything, ever.
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Updike always takes care that we not draw too close a connection between Bech and any one real writer. His first novel, Travel Light , is described as a quasi-Beat story about motorcycle gangs and juvenile delinquents in the American West.
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His second, Brother Pig , and his third, with the intriguing title The Chosen , are barely described at all, except that they were conspicuous failures. None of this makes Bech especially close to Mailer or Bellow or Roth or Salinger, his rough contemporaries; and of course his blockage makes him the polar opposite of Updike, who was famous for being unstoppably prolific.
No one sat shivah. No Kaddish had been said.
Series: Henry Bech Books
Six thousand years of observance had been overturned in Bech. What is genuinely illuminating in the Bech stories is not what Updike knows about Jewishness, which is not very much, but what he imagines about the way Jews think and feel. Echoing ancient tropes, he repeatedly comments on Jewish self-satisfaction and clannishness—without rancor, but also without recognizing that this sort of thing might get Jewish backs up. Or stiffen their necks.
When Bech is asked whether Jews believe in heaven, he replies:.
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But the idea that Jews occupy a self-satisfied center, relegating Gentiles to the periphery, crops up again and again in the Bech stories. The result, Think Big , is a best-seller, but from the way Updike describes it, a horrendously bad one, sounding more like Jacqueline Susann than like the literary novelist Bech is supposed to be. Travel Light was all about Gentiles. Join Reader Rewards and earn your way to a free book! Join Reader Rewards and earn points when you purchase this book from your favorite retailer.
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