After an absence of 16 years, John Updike's most farcical alter ago, Henry Bech, returns for a new series of stunts and adventures in this quasi-novel of the literary life. Introduced in 1970's Bech: A Book and recaptured 12 years later in Bech Is Back, Henry Bech shares little with his creator except the writing life. He is Jewish, only briefly married, childless (until the end of the current book, when he's past 70), unprolific, self-loathing, and mean-spirited. Through the trilogy, Bech'smisdemeanors keep piling up, and now in Bech at Bay we have the coup de theatre: he becomes a murderer.
Obviously, the Bech books are high satire, and this new one is particularly Waughian. Always on the defensive, Bech runs up against admirers he has no use for and detractors he'd like to annihilate either in print or in homicide. Bech at Bay packs more delicious caricatures than either of its predecessors. In the chapter Bech Presides, we're taken into the inner sanctum of an honorary society called The Forty which is supposed to represent the zenith of American artistic achievement. What we find is a gaggle of bickering novelists, composers, painters, and historians who are so vain and myopic they're unable to elect a single new member to their august company. The critic Isaiah Thornbush, Bech's elusive nemesis, persuades his rival to take on the presidency of The Forty, only to try to dismantle the group later and leave Bech floundering. The literary backbiting is vintage, and there is the added titillation of guessing what real-life luminary might be the model for this bitching musician or that oversexed poetess.
Updike likes to take Bech out of New York, where he has lived all his life, and put him in an exotic or baffling environment. Here he visits Prague (the year is 1986) and spends some unwelcome time in Los Angeles, where he is sued for libel by a Hollywood agent whom he described in a magazine article as an arch-gouger. The trial that follows shows that Updike was a keen observer of the O. J. Simpson proceedings and its shenanigans. He even gives Bech an ardent crush on a pop singer clearly based on Linda Ronstadt.
Henry Bech's charm has always been his anti-charm. He is as selfish, petty, and unscrupulous as the character George on Seinfeld. And in the chapter Bech Noir, Updike seems to have taken a Seinfeld plot device the death of George's fiancee from licking a poisonously gummed envelope as the modus operandi for Bech rubbing out a reviewer who had attacked his novella Brother Pig 40 years earlier. Successfully undetected, Bech goes on to gaslight another critic, via subliminal computer messages, and send him plunging to suicidal death. What just desserts does Updike give Bech? The Nobel Prize for literature and a baby girl named Golda.
Bech at Bay is sometimes precious, as satire often is, and it may be Updike Lite, but it has infectious, malicious vivacity. And unlike Rabbit Angstrom, Henry Bech is yet to be killed off. Maybe in his next book he'll run for Senate.
Randall Curb is a writer in Greensboro, Alabama.