Thursday, June 24, 2021

Quote of the Day (John Updike, Inside the Mind of an Unusual Lifeguard)

“Beyond doubt, I am a splendid fellow. In the autumn, winter and spring, I execute the duties of a student of divinity; in the summer I disguise myself in my skin and become a lifeguard. My slightly narrow and gingerly hirsute but not necessarily unmanly chest becomes brown. My smooth back turns the colour of caramel, which, in conjunction with the whipped cream of my white pith helmet, gives me, some of my teenage satellites assure me, a delightfully edible appearance. My legs, which I myself can study, cocked as they are before me while I repose on my elevated wooden throne, are dyed a lustreless maple walnut that accentuates their articulate strength. Correspondingly, the hairs of my body are bleached blond, so that my legs have the pointed elegance of, within the flower, umber anthers dusted with pollen.”—American man of letters John Updike (1932-2009), “Lifeguard,” originally printed in The New Yorker, Aug. 24, 1960, reprinted in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962)

Okay, I don’t think Sam Elliott (pictured) is what John Updike had in mind for his cerebral lifeguard. As a matter of fact, after seeing him in prominent roles in westerns as his hair turned gray and his skin grew more weather-beaten, I have trouble thinking of him in the title role of the film Lifeguard. But at its release in 1976, he—like all of us alive then—was far younger than now.

In an case Elliott is, for me, a far more palatable option than perhaps the most famous image of a male lifeguard: David Hasselhoff of Baywatch. Over the years, “The Hoff” has generated enough publicity without requiring any more from me, thank you.

By the way, for those of you wondering: the Elliott movie was not an adaptation of this Updike short story. The film, with a script by Ron Koslow, actually has something that at least passes for a plot. In contrast, Updike’s offers a Joycean reverie that delights in language and—naturally, given its divinity-student narrator—features an epiphany:

“We enter the sea with shock; our skin and blood shout in protest. But, that instant, that leap, past, what do we find? Ecstasy and buoyancy. Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.”

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