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A quick revisit with Henry Bech

'Bech At Bay: A Quasi-Novel'
By John Updike

Web posted on: Friday, October 30, 1998 4:12:33 PM EST

(CNN) -- It's not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task an indomitable mixture of grit and ennui.



Bech Noir

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 alcoholic dementia."

"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 mine."

"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 tonight."

"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 without panic.

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 fallen open,

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 rush hour."

"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 once."


"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 unreal.

"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 sex."

"No," she said. "It made me feel tender. You seemed so innocent, with your mouth sagging open."

Copyright 1998 John Updike.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 037540368X

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