Updike was a young man, just twenty-two, when he wrote “Ex-Basketball Player,” but he has returned to the figure of a high-school basketball star and his anticlimactic adulthood throughout his career. Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit At Rest (1990), considered by many to be the author’s masterpieces and arguably milestones in twentieth century American fiction, trace the life of their hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, through his late twenties until his death in his mid-fifties. Flick Webb is surely a prototype for Updike’s much more famous literary creation.
Like Rabbit, Flick was a high-school basketball record holder whose early successes and, within a provincial context, fame, have dire consequences. Readers might ask themselves who is to blame for what appears to be Flick’s certain future demise. Is the problem that Flick allowed adoration to get to his head and never bothered to prepare a better future for himself, or is the problem that Flick lives in a society that confers such status on exceptionally talented high-school athletes that their future failings are almost preordained? The casual reader who reads the poem as a simple indictment of Flick or simply as a portrait of a pathetic former high-school basketball star rapidly approaching a disappointing middle age might consider a few of the poem’s details.
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An acclaimed and award-winning writer of fiction, essays, and reviews, John Updike also wrote poetry for most of his life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, his early inspiration to be a writer came from watching his mother, an aspiring writer, submit her work to magazines. In an interview Updike stated, “I began as a writer of light verse, and have tried to carry over into my serious or lyric verse something of the strictness and liveliness of the lesser form.” In his teens, he was already publishing poems in magazines. Though he knew that he would not make a living by writing only poetry, his writing career began in 1954 when the New Yorker accepted one of his poems, followed by a short story. His first book, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), was a collection of poems.
Updike’s career as a writer has been remarkably prolific and varied. In addition to poetry, his work included novels (The Witches of Eastwick, Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit, Run), short stories, music criticism (Concerts at Castle Hill), and essays on art (Just Looking: Essays on Art) and golf (Golf Dreams: Writing on Golf). His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for both Rabbit Is Rich in 1981, and Rabbit at Rest in 1991), the American Book Award for fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism.
His poetry, starting as light verse, encompasses a variety of forms and topics. His poetry was praised for his wit and precision, and for his ability to focus on common subjects and on places near and distant—from Shillington, Pennsylvania (the town of his childhood), to Venice, Italy. His collections of poetry include Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).