That’s the magic word-identification

When the writer John Updike is driving little white balls off a golf tee, the furthest thing from his mind is whether or not this obsessive exercise has anything to do with creating meaningful literature.

One of the reasons I play golf is that it gets me away from writing and literary politics, and the rather claustrophobic world of the printed page, the prolific author of forty-six books, seventeen of them elegantly crafted novels, said during a recent interview in Boston.

Yet our talk, aptly enough, was occasioned by release of Golf Dreams (Alfred A. Knopf, 201 pages, $23), a new collection of thirty scattered pieces Updike has written over the years about the diversion he sometimes feels has stolen my life away.

A native of Shillington, Pennsylvania, the 64-year-old man of letters has lived for the past four decades in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, a coastal community just north of Boston. He is best known by thousands of readers as creator of the four Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom novels Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest ), and other contemporary classics such as The Poorhouse Fair, The Centaur, Couples, and The Witches of Eastwick.

Updike’s honors include two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the National Book Award, the American Book Award and the Howells Medal, and he is equally adept at writing short stories, essays, criticism and poetry as he is at shaping sophisticated novels; his oeuvre also includes Self Consciousness, a memoir, Buchanan Dying, a play, and five children’s books.

Golf Dreams developed more or less by happenstance, Updike acknowledged. The book wouldn’t exist if Golf Digest hadn’t invited me to write an annual essay on golf some years ago, although he has done a few fictional treatments of the game as part of larger works.

In addition to the Golf Digest articles, the collection includes excerpts from the novels Rabbit Run, Rabbit at Rest, and A Month of Sundays, a short story written in the 1950s, as well as pieces that first appeared in the New Yorker and other publications.

Updike’s romance with the sport began in 1954, not long after he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and returned home from a year of study at Oxford University. When you’re a kid, you have wimps who don’t do sports at all, or you have jocks who can do them all very nicely, and I was really somewhere in between, he recalled.

I wasn’t very good at sports, but I did like athletic endeavors, and I played a lot of alley basketball, a lot of touch football, a lot of vacant lot baseball, so the sensations of all these sports were real to me, even though I never ascended the heights. I wasn’t what my father used to call a natural. He was a public school teacher and kind of a fatalist about performance, academics as well as sports. In his view, you either had it or you didn’t.”

Nevertheless, as he got older, Updike found golf particularly seductive. For me to have some sport I could do as an adult, not lose all the time, win some of the time, and be better than some people, if worse than others all that is kind of meaningful to me, he said.

In a way, it has kind of kept me in touch with my physical self. The simplicity and difficulty of the swing, all that loomed to me as exciting, mystical even. So it became something that interested me, and it turned out that I wanted to write about it after all.

With a subtle blend of dry wit and graceful language, Updike has loosely structured Golf Dreams around learning, playing and loving the game. The title piece has pride of place in the collection, and alternates between moods of fantasy and nightmare on the fairways.

In the winter, you get this golf hunger, and it begins to enter your dreams, Updike explained. You always accept the course in a golf dream. However outrageously difficult it is, whether you’re hitting off a table or trying to get the ball into a thimble, you always doggedly accept it as the way you do on a real golf course.

He paused momentarily before putting the matter into further context. It is true, that like sex, if you go without golf for a while, you begin to dream about it, and that has been the case with me.

As one of the truly great fiction writers of his generation, Updike has no trouble describing golf in metaphoric terms. It teaches you about life, it teaches you about yourself, he said.

Golf doesn’t let you kid yourself. In a way, it’s a lot of what life is not like now, in a crowded world. It offers you space, it allows kind of a return to the hunter self. Golf courses and cemeteries are among the last places that continue to hold open land for us, at least here in the northeast.

Away from the golf course, Updike is a tireless worker, and rarely a year goes by without one book or other issuing forth from his imagination. Each of his four Rabbit books appeared at the start of a new decade, but with the death of Harry Angstrom in “Rabbit at Rest” six years ago, he has been forced to modify his routine.

It’s sort of scary now, as I approach the time when I would be beginning yet another Rabbit novel, to realize that I’ve pretty well precluded the possibility of any sequel, he said, although he holds out the prospect of bringing back Henry Bech, a writer not a lot unlike himself who appeared in two collections of stories, Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back.

I love those Bech stories, I think they were among my crispest, he said. Unlike Rabbit, Henry Bech was a character who was articulate, and there was no thought you could have that you couldn’t assign to him. He was a sort of thinking intellectual who offered himself as a receptacle for me.

By receptacle, of course, Updike means a character he can use as something of an alter ego.

You want somebody who’s enough unlike you that it’s fun to be imagining yourself in his skin, or her skin, but also somebody to which you can feel simpatico and have some identification with, he concluded. That’s the magic word-identification.

It is that very word, in fact, that will apply to the legions of fairway aficionados who dip into this agreeable book about a shared passion.