In this, the final volume in John Updike’s mock-heroic trilogy about the Jewish American writer Henry Bech, our hero is older but scarcely wiser. Now in his seventies, he remains competitive, lecherous, and self-absorbed, lost in a brave new literary world where his books are hyped by Swiss-owned conglomerates, showcased in chain stores attached to espresso bars, and returned to warehouses three weeks after publication. In five chapters more startling and surreal than any that have come before, Bech presides over the American literary scene, enacts bloody revenge on his critics, and wins the world’s most coveted writing prize. It’s not easy being Henry Bech in the post-Gutenbergian world, but somebody has to do it, and he brings to the task his signature mixture of grit, spit, and ennui.
In this follow-up to Bech: A Book, Henry Bech, the priapic, peripatetic, and unproductive Jewish American novelist, returns with seven more chapters from his mock-heroic life. He turns fifty in a confusing blend of civic and erotic circumstances while publicizing himself in Australia and Canada. He marries a shiksa and travels with her to Israel, where she falls in love with the land, and to Scotland, where he does. And—sweating buckets! thinking big! minting miracles!—he writes an ingeniously tawdry bestseller. Bech’s aesthetic and moral embarrassments reveal acid truths about both his trade and our times.
The Jewish American novelist Henry Bech—procrastinating, libidinous, and tart-tongued, his reputation growing while his powers decline—made his first appearance in 1965, in John Updike’s “The Bulgarian Poetess.” That story won the O. Henry First Prize, and it and the six Bech adventures that followed make up this collection. “Bech is the writer in me,” Updike once said, “creaking but lusty, battered but undiscourageable, fed on the blood of ink and the bread of white paper.” As he trots the globe, promotes himself, and lurches from one woman’s bed to another’s, Bech views life with a blend of wonder and cynicism that will make followers of the lit-biz smile with delight and wince in recognition.