cover image Bech at Bay

Bech at Bay

John Updike. Knopf Publishing Group, $23 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40368-2

At this juncture of his life, ""semiobscure"" literary writer Henry Bech (Bech: A Book; Bech Is Back) may be ""at bay""--attacked by fellow writers, sued for libel, derided by critics, consumed by worry about his place in the literary pantheon--but his creator, Updike, is writing with undiminished energy and a bellyfull of chuckles. In five interrelated sections that move backward and forward through time, from 1986, when the 63-year-old Bech is again in Prague, to 1999, when he accepts the Nobel Prize with his eight-month-old daughter in his arms, Bech pursues his craft, an assortment of women, vengeance and peace of mind, veering between misery and elation, bathing in self-doubt or preening egotistically. Updike uses this opportunity to air issues besetting the arts in the 1990s--both the factionalism within the literary community and the dwindling interest in the arts without. Updike evokes Bech's Jewish persona with gusto, endowing him with a Yiddish vocabulary, self-deprecation, irony, guilt and a sense of being an outsider in society despite his acclaim. The most entertaining section, one step away from farce, is ""Bech Noir,"" in which the writer, with the help of his young lover and a computer, systematically does away with the critics who have disparaged his work. Equally amusing is Bech's stint as president of an august literary society in ""Bech Presides"": Updike drolly implants recognizable traits of living writers in the members of the Forty, and extends the joke by interpolating references to Pynchon, Salinger, Gaddis, Sontag and others of his contemporaries. In this and other sections, he has fun reflecting the backbiting and jealousy of the ""Manhattan intelligentsia, a site saturated in poisonous envy and reflexive intolerance."" While not a ""big"" book for Updike, this is an insightful and amusing look at the American literary scene. Editor, Judith Jones; first serial to the New Yorker; simultaneous Random House audio. (Oct.)