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"Bech Enters Heaven" | John Updike's Complete Stories Summary Analysis

“Bech Enters Heaven” (1970)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories


updike-bech-bookThis series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.

[“Bech Enters Heaven” was never published in magazine form. It first appeared in Bech: A Book, and again in The Complete Henry Bech.]

In 1964, John Updike was elected, at the mere age of 32, to the 250-member National Institute of Arts and Letters on West 155th Street in Manhattan, and 12 years later elevated to the 50-member Academy of Arts and Letters, as close as America has to a French Academy of immortals. Updike recreates the 1964 election in “Bech Enters Heaven” by injecting it warmly into Bech’s past and wrapping it in his memories of one day being forced by his mother to play hooky: she’d gotten tickets to the induction ceremony at the unnamed pantheon on the Upper West Side. It’s a quick glimpse into Bech’s youth, his early independence, fierce disavowals of his mother, and his ambition.

Bech is immediately taken by the scene at the pantheon. “Each face, even at the distance of the balcony, displayed the stamp of extra precision that devout attention and frequent photography etch upon a visage; each had suffered the crystallization of fame. Young Henry saw that there were other types of Heaven, less agitated and more elevated than the school, more compact and less tragic than Yankee Stadium, where the scattered players, fragile in white, seemed about to be devoured by the dragon-shaped crowd.” He also feels the chasm separating him from the famous, feels being part of “the anonymous, perishable crowd on the other side of the veil.” From where he wants out. That had been his mother’s intention, bringing him there. To give him a push toward heaven. It worked, as “she sensed, in the abstracted way he clung to her side, neither welcoming nor cringing from her touch when she reached to reassure him in the crowd, that his attention had been successfully turned. His ears were red, showing that an inner flame had been lit.”


The story moves up three decades (Bech is a decade older than Updike when inducted, but still young). He receives an invitation in the mail, he goes, he observes. That part of the story is pure autobiography, with the names changed, because most of the writers he’s referring to are still alive–John Cheever, who’d sponsored his election and been a member since 1957, John Dos Passos, Ogden Nash, Thornton Wilder, Harry Levin, who’d been his English professor, Saul Bellow, William Maxwell, and Bernard Malamud, elected the same year as Udike and, according to Adam Begley, “one of the models for Henry Bech.” The names are changed to Eustace Chubb, Josh Glazer, Anatole Husac, Kingsgrant Forbes, Mildred Belloussovsky-Dommergues, Torquemada Langguth. You get the sense that the names are inside puns, inside Updike’s head, too Finneganny to be deciphered. The whole scene has the feel of an inside joke, or at least an inside job, the author (Bech or Updike) inviting us to witness his apotheosis, and Updike happy to take advantage of a device to create a story that celebrates his accession.

Fictional authors are mentioned only to be denigrated, and there, too, you wonder if Updike isn’t scoring his pot shots at only he and his victims know who, a juvenile device of college magazines that may, who knows, have caused a wince or two and kept The New Yorker, in whose pages many of these writers were still appearing, from accepting the story. Josh Glazer “was deaf, his hair was dyed black, and his teeth were false too, for his blasts of breath carried with them a fetid smell of trapped alcohol and of a terrible organic something that suggested to Bech—touching a peculiar fastidiousness that was all that remained of his ancestors’ orthodoxy— the stench of decayed shellfish.” Anatole Husac “was sweating out a drug high, his hands twitching like suffocating fish.” Old Fenella Anne Collins wore “the startled facial expression of the blind.”

The segment could have but doesn’t soar like the opening pages, or the final page, when he conjures up his childhood and mother again, in that very moment when he rises to accept his nomination: “When he stood, he had expected to rear into a man’s height, and instead rose no taller than a child.” It’s not only an accurate representation of how small one feels at moments so grand, but also a superb way of evoking the past–Bech’s, and the story’s, as we slowly are led back in Bech’s mind to that day with his mother. He thinks he sees her in the front row, though she’s been dead years. It’s a wonderful recall of his trip as a truant with his mother, a posthumous homage to her even after the woman turns out to be someone unrecognizable, maybe someone with a young boy next to her. His eyes water. “He had made it, he was here, in Heaven. Now what?”

–P.T.

John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)

Title
Year Written
First Published
First Collected
Ace In the Hole
1954
New Yorker, April 9, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Friends From Philadelphia
1954
New Yorker, Oct. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
A Game of Botticelli
1954
The Liberal Context, Fall 1963
Collected Early Stories (2013)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth
1955
New Yorker, Apr. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
Dentistry and Doubt
1955
New Yorker, Oct. 29, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)
1955
New Yorker, Jan. 21, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
The Kid's Whistling
1955
New Yorker, Dec. 3, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Toward Evening
1955
New Yorker, Feb. 11, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow
1956
New Yorker, April 7, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Wife-wooing (The Maples)
1960
New Yorker, March 12, 1960
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
Giving Blood (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, April 6, 1963
The Music School (1966)
Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, February 6, 1964
The Music School (1966)
The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)
1964
New Yorker, March 13, 1965
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech in Rumania
1966
New Yorker, Oct. 8, 1966
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Takes Pot Luck
1968
New Yorker, Oct. 7, 1968
Bech: A Book (1970)
Rich in Russia (Bech)
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Swings?
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Panics
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Enters Heaven
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
The Gun Shop
1972
New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1972
Problems (1979)
Believers
1972
Harper's, July 1972
Problems (1979)
How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time
1972
New Yorker, Aug. 19, 1972
Problems (1979)
Nevada
1972
Playboy, January 1974
Problems (1979)
Sons
1973
New Yorker, April 21, 1973
Problems (1979)
Daughter, Last Glimpse Of
1973
New Yorker, November 5, 1973
Problems (1979)
Ethiopia
1973
New Yorker, Jan. 14, 1974
Problems (1979)
Transaction
1973
Oui, March 1974
Problems (1979)
Augustine's Concubine
1974
The Atlantic, April 1975
Problems (1979)
Except for most of the Maples stories and the Henry Bech stories, the summaries and analyses are based on the texts presented in the two-volume Library of America edition of the complete stories (2013).
 

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