Augusten Burroughs remembers John Updike (sort of)
On 2 December 2006, this extract, from Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs, was published in The Guardian newspaper. When I read this piece earlier today, I was a little taken aback but now I think it’s very readable.
Tonight, my lunatic friend Suzanne worked me into a frenzy. “Baby,” she said, “do you realise John Updike is, like, 80! He’s got to be at least 80! He could even be 90. He has been a legend for ever. And I just right now read that the life expectancy of the average male is 77.6 years. And that means he could die at any moment. Buy his first editions, NOW!!!” She was calling from California – land of the vineyards – and her voice contained a slight chardonnay edge. Suzanne and I met in California, when we worked at the same ad agency but at different times. First me, then her. They loved her much more. Because Suzanne can sell anything.
“I don’t know,” I said. First editions are expensive. Did I really want to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a book I couldn’t even read because it had to remain perfect?
“I’m telling you, this man is gonna drop dead any minute,” she said. “And he’s the most famous writer in the world. My God. Whatever you buy will double, triple in value. Possibly overnight. He may be DEAD BY MORNING. BUY NOW!”
Now that was an interesting point. If Updike died tonight, my $200 could be worth $400 tomorrow. I could stick his book on eBay, and with the profit I could buy a slew of novels at Barnes & Noble. I would pre-order whatever Elizabeth Berg had coming out. I would buy every Joyce Carol Oates, because it’s time to read her. Or maybe only every fifth book of hers. I would buy multiple copies of Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss in paperback and give them as gifts.
Maybe Suzanne was right.
So I went online and found a bunch of Updikes. But they were horrifyingly expensive. One of them was $2,000. And he wasn’t even dead yet. Some of them were signed, which made them much more valuable. But the fucker could still sign. If you forced him to sign, put a pen in his hand and a gun to his head, he could still sign his name. So imagine how much they’d be worth when he could no longer sign at all, even at gunpoint, due to death. If I was going to spend $2,000 on a book about a rabbit, that old man better well be dead by morning, or I was going to be furious.
I selected a signed first edition from the list. A moderate first, in the $500 price range. Then I emailed Suzanne. “OK, baby. DONE. Bought Updike. Now what?”
She wrote back immediately. “FANTASTIC. XOXOXOXOX. BUY MORE NOW. I JUST HAVE A FEELING. I KNOW THESE THINGS.”
She was crazy, and tonight she was crazed. We allowed that, since both she and I had been published through sheer desperation and willpower, surely we could land this one little … coup. Using our minds. Suzanne has been collecting Updike first editions since she was 14. When she published her first novel with Updike’s publisher, she immediately sent a box of his first editions to her editor, and all but demanded that the old man sign them. Mr Updike did this, and returned them. “It’s ironic,” she wrote, “because his innate generosity and kindness in the past now make him doubly worth killing.”
It was uncanny. She seemed certain of the great novelist’s impending death. Was there even a remote possibility that she’d have something to do with it? If so, was it wrong of me to then buy these first editions? The last thing I wanted was to get myself involved in some sort of “insider trading” nightmare.
She sent another email. “The thing is, I worship John Updike. I’d crumple from awe if I saw him alive and in person. I think he is the greatest male writer of the 20th century. I would drink his bath water and shine his little Yankee shoes. But I still hoard those first editions as though they were a very life insurance policy on the man and I were his 19-year-old wife. It’s just awful. I blame money and the fact of its usefulness in every single situation except death.”
And I was the same way, just as hateful and greedy. So couldn’t I buy more? It wasn’t like I was throwing money away on particleboard night stands at Wal-Mart. These were enduring classics. In Extra, Extra Fine condition, no rips, stains, or price clips.
So I went back online and bought two more books. Now I had purchased three books, which cost me more money than some people spend on their first cars.
I emailed Suzanne. “OK, now I’m broke. I bought two more, so I have three. He’d better die.”
She said, “OK, let’s do it. Let’s kill him.”
I said, “Sure. How?”
She said, “Let’s constantly think of him as dying. Let’s concentrate very hard. And in the morning, we’ll watch CNN. I bet you anything they’ll announce that John Updike died in his sleep. And nobody will be able to trace it to us. Because who even knows where he lives, and we’re all the way over here, where we live.”
Suzanne is a diabolical genius, which is why I adore her. She then wrote, “BUY SIGNED FIRST EDITIONS OR NOT AT ALL.”
So for the remainder of the night, we exchanged emails. I bought Couples. $495. Signed by the author, with light wear to dust jacket.
She wrote, “HE’LL BE DEAD BY MORNING.”
“How do you think he’ll die?” I wrote. “Do you think he might choke? I could see that. I was just looking at a picture of him and he has a slender, graceful neck. The perfect neck to trap the jagged edge of a corn chip. I bet he chokes.”
She wrote back, “Maybe. But I think stroke. Flip a switch, nothing. He’s gone. Clean and simple. In his sleep. He is the greatest living American writer so we can’t have him suffer. At least, not very much.”
She was right. Whatever killed him had to kill him fast.
And then I realised: some day, this will be me. Some horrible, selfish, greedy, bald writer will buy my early books online and then pray for my immediate demise. In fact, it was probably happening right this very minute.
I decided to check. I’d never looked up my own name on a used-book website before. It never occurred to me that I could be collectable, like a cup from Burger King. So I went back to the website where I bought the Updike books and typed in my own name.
“Running With Scissors. First edition. © 2002 Augusten Burroughs. St Martin’s Press, New York, New York. Memoir about author’s unusual childhood. Unread. As new. In dust wrappers. Signed on title page. $200.”
I was shocked. It was already happening. People were selling my books online, collecting them, waiting for me to relapse with multiple drugs and then die. I’d make page six: Scissors Author Dead, Apparent Alcohol Overdose.
Then that $200 book would be worth $400, $500. About the same price as a damaged Updike, non-dead.
What else were people selling, I wondered.
I decided to log on to eBay. There, I typed my name into the little box and hit “search”. A moment later, listings appeared. Books, books, books, and then my watch
I looked at my computer screen in utter disbelief. I clicked on the link next to the picture of the watch and was taken to a page. “Rolex GMT Master. Stainless steel, black face. Watch worn for publicity during promotion of number 1 bestselling book, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS. Watch appears on author’s wrist in many magazine photographs, including ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, PEOPLE.”
The ad gave the name of the seller.
I called him immediately. “What the fuck are you doing, you ass burger?”
As usual, he was unmoved. “Huh? What are you talking about?”
“I just saw my watch on eBay. What are you doing?”
My brother said, “What do you mean, what am I doing? I’m selling the watch. You said you wanted me to sell it and you gave it to me to sell. So I’m selling it.”
He was correct, of course. I had given him the Rolex to sell. I’d bought it with my dirty advertising money, so every time I looked at my wrist to check the time, I thought, “Storyboards, focus groups, arsehole boss with a backwards baseball cap.” I’d reached a point where I would prefer to drag a sundial in a wagon behind me than wear that watch for one more minute. So I’d given it to my brother, assuming he’d sell it to his friend who owns a jewellery store. I never expected him to sell it on eBay. With all those … words.
“Well, it’s weird,” I said.
“What’s weird about it?” he asked. “We already have three bids.”
The whole thing reeked of Billy Beer II. In the 70s, when Jimmy Carter was elected president, his trailer-trash brother launched a line of beer. Billy Beer. Mortifying the president.
Another thing came to mind: Demi Moore’s mother posing nude in front of a potter’s wheel for a porn magazine.
But my brother thought there was nothing strange about selling my watch on eBay. “Look, you gave me the watch to sell. I’m selling it. You want me to take the ad down, I can take the ad down.”
“No,” I said. “Keep it up. Sell it. Get rid of it.” My greed was far more powerful than my pride.
And then I had an idea. “Do you think people would buy other things?” I asked him.
He didn’t have to think about this for very long. “Oh, sure. People will buy all sorts of things. What else do you want to sell?”
Well, hmm. I could sell my silver key chain. I hated it. It was worth maybe 25 cents. But would somebody pay 50 bucks for it? “Sure,” my brother said. “I bet somebody’d pay a hundred for it.”
Shit. Maybe people would buy my empty Blenheim Ginger Ale bottles. If I packaged them in a tasteful brown cloth sack and said, “Blenheim Ginger Ale bottles, empty. Consumed by Augusten Burroughs while writing first essay collection. $1,000.”
Maybe I could email my writer friend, Haven. We email every single day, all day, constantly. Perhaps I could gather together a dozen of our emails and sell these as a package. Say for $300. Then I could send her half. And we could each go out to Red Lobster.
I thought of John Updike. Surely when he dies, somebody will be rifling through his home, looking for things to sell. It was unlikely that his own children, if he had any, would sell his nail clippers, underwear or ChapStick. But certainly cousins would do this. Nieces and nephews would absolutely offer his pens, unused pads of paper, bookends for sale. Probably other things.
John Updike, legendary American author. For auction: Chair cushion, blue toile fabric. Cushion from desk chair, used daily by celebrated author. Distinctive impressions in pillow, from correlating anatomical features of author. Condition is described as “well enjoyed”. Cushion manufactured circa 1940. Believed to be from Sears, Roebuck & Co. This is an authentic piece of Americana, from the personal estate of one of the country’s most famous and widely read authors. Truly a unique collectable. One of a kind. Minimum bid: $3,500.
But that’s what happens when you die. The vultures come. Sometimes even before you die.
Long before my grandmother passed away, the vultures around her carted Persian carpets, Ming vases, expensive Italian fruitwood tables out of her house. They used vans. And they did this years before the woman was in a wheelchair and on a breathing machine, let alone dead. She had simply slowed down is all. And there they were, greedy little hands outstretched: gimme, gimme, gimme.
If one were to watch us from a great distance, with the sound off and in fast-motion, one would see an individual begin to limp, and then dozens of other individuals invade the territory of the infirm individual, carting away belongings, clinging near the deathbed, waiting.
We are animals, true. But we are also like insects.
And here I was, with my three new John Updike novels, checking the CNN home page every five minutes for breaking news.
John Updike – American legend dead. Story to follow.
Well, I decided, if he was dead by morning, there would be nobody to blame but me. If John Updike was dead when I woke up, then I had killed him with my hateful greed. Suzanne, too, would be guilty. But somehow, I was the most guilty because I got the most excited.
After all, she had merely suggested I buy his books. I’m the one who actually spent the money. That shows true pathology.
If anybody deserved to die in his sleep tonight, or choke on a tortilla chip, it was me.
I turned off my computer and climbed into bed. My partner Dennis would be home in an hour. And he would find me in bed, as though sick.
I tucked into Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, which was swiftly proving to be the finest, most elegant book ever written. And then I thought, “Hey. Wait a fucking minute.”
And I got out of bed and went back online. Where I found a first edition, though not signed.
I clicked “Add to cart”.
And then I said out loud, “OK, Ira. Your number’s up.”