Updike Country


in Features


On a very clear day, blue sky, bright, bright sunlight, you’ll spy an amazing cloud. It is structured like a column. It is dense and white and billows upward, touching the outer limits of the firmament, seemingly. Probably it goes up only a few hundred feet. But the verticality of the cloud is what makes it so inspiring. Just going right up there. Up into the heavens over semi-rural Pennsylvania.

How did this cloud get here, in such an otherwise empty, blue sky? It is a miracle.

They started building the Limerick nuclear power plant in 1974 and it was officially commissioned in 1986. Officially, the plant is called The Limerick Generating Station. Limerick. The name comes from the town. The town is not really a town. Or, at least, I’ve never seen the center of it. There is no locality to the town, just signs as you drive around saying that you’re in Limerick or no longer in Limerick. There is a small, regional airport in Limerick and an outlet shopping center.

Truth be told, the town of Limerick is basically the nuclear power plant now. That is the center. You can see the steam cloud rising over the cooling towers from miles away. It is a useful point of orientation when driving around the windy roads that double back on themselves half of the time.

John Updike always wrote beautifully about this part of the world. The middle class houses. The certain kind of red clay. The specific attitude of a person who grew up around here, in the vicinity of Reading.

If John Updike were still alive and driving around Limerick he’d write something about the beautiful pseudo-cloud coming from the cooling tower of the Limerick plant. He’d say, the white powder of that cloud drifts over the farmland and the strip malls all the same. It dusts the heads of the locals on their way out of the bar on Township Line Road. It dusts everything. You can’t see or feel the dust. It does not harm. But it’s heavy nonetheless. It keeps you here even when you might want to pass on through. If you get caught in the nuclear dust on a fine warm day with a blue, blue sky, you just might lay down for a nap, like Dorothy on the way to the Emerald City. And then you find yourself living in a housing development just under the terrific oblong towers of the plant. You look up to see the cloud day after day. You see it looming on the horizon driving down 422 at night, lit up by the ethereal lights of the surrounding plant structure. You need to be near to the dust and the cloud, for reasons obscure even to yourself

On the worst days I think that there is nothing to learn about these towns, these places. You ask and you look and you dig things up and it is nothing. Schwenksville, Collegeville, Phoenixville, Limerick, Trappe. Zero. A history forgotten. In the thousands of housing units, nothing. No reason to be here except that someone has to be.

One day I took Mrs. B to get her hair cut. She doesn’t go to a licensed salon. The place she goes is in the back of a local house. The people who own the salon have several businesses, as far as I can tell. They do some trucking, some moving around of things, some hauling of material from here to there.

To get to the salon, you go to the house and walk in through the back porch. There’s no sign. Inside, there’s a room with linoleum and lots of plastic. Plastic that’s been around for a long time and has that special murkiness that comes to old plastic. The room was set up a long time ago and it hasn’t changed since then. The woman who owns the salon talks in such a way that you don’t know what decade it is. The conversation isn’t particular to time. Even talk of politics isn’t specific to political events so much as a political position. The position is that politics are bad and they’ve always been bad and they are probably going to keep being bad.

There’s an old magazine on a wooden stand and the women in the magazine have the same hairstyle as Mrs. B and as the woman who is styling Mrs. B’s hair and as the woman who is just finishing getting her hair set in one of those over-the-head domes that sets your hair, or whatever it does.

The owner/stylist is kind and gentle with Mrs. B’s head. She goes about her business like she knows exactly what to do. And she does know. Mrs. B doesn’t say anything about what she wants or about anything else either. Mrs. B fell asleep for a little while.

Sometimes, men from outside will come in through the side door. The men walk along a passage next to the salon toward another door and go through that door. The men who go that way are always wearing work clothes. They have been doing work outside with trucks and other machines. They never say anything to the women in the salon area. The men look into the salon. They check it out. They take note of the people in the salon. They seem to approve. The look is approving. But there are no words.

I read John Updike’s quartet of Rabbit books many years before I moved to Pennsylvania, in the vicinity of Reading where Updike was born. Updike actually grew up in Shillington, which is right outside of Reading. When Updike was 13 years old, the family moved to Plowville, which is even smaller than Shillington and just a few miles south down the 176. Then, Updike went to Harvard and after that to New York City. The rest is literary history, as they say. I’m reading the Rabbit books again now. In the Rabbit books, Updike calls Berks County ‘Brewer County’. But he doesn’t do much work to hide real locations other than changing a few names.

At the beginning of Rabbit is Rich, the third installment of the Rabbit quartet, Rabbit has become the co-owner – with his wife Janice – of Springer Motors, a Toyota agency. That’s why Rabbit is rich. He’s good at selling cars—not a great surprise given Rabbit’s general amiability, his athleticism and good looks.

In the very first paragraph of Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit Angstrom is standing in the display room of Springer Motors watching traffic go by on Route 111. He’s worried that the traffic is light and that the world is running out of gas. Rabbit is Rich was written in the late 1970s and published in 1981. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution had created something of a global panic about oil production. There were gas shortages throughout the US and long lines at gas stations became a regular occurrence. People got in fistfights. Occasionally, someone at a gas station would get shot.

“Gas lines at ninety-nine point nine cents a gallon and ninety per cent of the stations to be closed for the weekend,” Rabbit thinks. He remembers that there had just been an incident along the Pottsville Pike where a trucker who couldn’t get diesel started shooting at his own truck.

What jumps out at me in those passages now are the roads. Route 111. The Pottsville Pike. These details were filler for me the first time I read the books. But now I can see them as I read. Route 111 ran up along the Susquehanna Trail from Maryland into Pennsylvania, right up into the Harrisburg area. Since Updike wrote his books, Route 111 has been replaced by Interstate 83. The Pottsville Pike is Route 61, which opened in 1963 and is still Route 61 (sometimes called the Pottsville Pike in places) today.

Route 61, the Pottsville Pike, must have had special resonance for Updike. Route 61 terminates right in the middle of Reading. Or maybe it starts there. Depends on how you look at it. For Updike, in some important way, Reading was the center of the universe. And here is a road, Route 61, the Pottsville Pike, that understands this metaphysical fact. Here is a road that knows that when you get to Reading, there is nowhere else to go.

I avoid going out anywhere near the time of 2pm. That is when things start happening with children. The younger ones get out of school. They have to be picked up and taken somewhere else. The buses head out for the roads. The minivans. It happens quickly. The roads fill up with the swiftness and inexorability of a digital clock beeping its alarm on the kitchen countertop.

It is possible to know what mood someone is in just by the way they drive. By the way they sit at a stop light, inching forward. By the way they edge around your car trying to make a left hand turn into a driveway but finding no break in the oncoming traffic. By the long line of tailgating cars going across the suburban, then rural, then suburban, then rural again roads.

There is a break in the traffic around 3:30. Then begins the evening commute. People coming back in from Philly. People coming home from the industrial parks and the corporate compounds. People coming in from the retail jobs at the big outlet malls. And then at around 7 PM the traffic dies out into silence again. The people are in their homes and the lights from the television shows are flickering in the windows.

This was where the sheep came through, he told me. We were standing in the “third field,” roughly an acre of land at the part of the property furthest from the road. You’ve got to walk along the river for a quarter mile or so to get there. At the back of the field is the remnant of a dirt road. Now, fallen trees and scrub brush block the road for anything but foot traffic. Even on foot, you have to climb over broken tree limbs and push aside brambles. No one uses the road but the hunters. They come during deer season mostly, hiding in the bushes along the road, waiting for a buck to make his way through.

Across from the old dirt road is someone else’s field. They grow hay in that field. You can see the round bales stacked to the side of the field during the reaping season. Mr. B is not interested in what happens beyond the confines of his own property. He rarely goes so far as the old dirt road. But after he fixed the clutch on his tractor last summer, he decided to clear the brush on the “third field” in the hopes that a local farmer might pay him a little bit of rent to plant some crops.

We were standing in the middle of the “third field” at the end of summer. Every footstep brought out a swarm of gnats. About a hundred or so gnats with every step, give or take. A sweet smell was drifting in from the east. Some kind of fruit rotting on the ground off in the woods, probably. The sweetness had that under-twang of decomposition.

I asked Mr. B who owned the sheep. Nobody owned them, he said. Some farmer bought them, I don’t know who. But they got away. Or the farmers got tired of feeding them and just let them go. They went feral, anyway. What do you mean, feral, I wanted to know. They went wild. They roamed around from property to property. This is where they would walk, nearly a hundred sheep at the height of it. You would see them walking along the ridge there too (he pointed to the horizon). They had their paths. It was all farmland in those days, mostly. The sheep knew how to get from one field to another. No one owned them. They would travel around.

You can get in trouble for letting sheep go feral, Mr. B told me. You can get sued by other farmers for aiding and abetting. The sheep eat the crops in the fields. And if you give them safe haven, you are aiding and abetting. Crop theft.

Mr. B aided and abetted for a while. Then, the farmers in the area took action. They got some men together with rifles and tracked the sheep down. They shot the feral sheep one by one until they were all dead. I didn’t say anything. Mr. B. just kept walking along, back toward the house.

I didn’t want to get sued over them, he said.

A few of the feral sheep paths are still out there, at the back of the property. They are the last trace of a time when, in the summer, you could have stumbled upon hundreds of sheep doing not very much, munching on crops that they did not plant and had no right to eat. Giving not a sheep’s shit about whose land they were besmirching. Using the paths that they’d created to go just where they pleased.

In a little essay for The Guardian about rereading the Rabbit novels 20 years after his first go, Julian Barnes claims that the books made him “increasingly aware of this underlying sense of things being already over, of the tug of dying and death.”

Rabbit talks like that in the beginning of Rabbit is Rich. Rabbit thinks to himself, “the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending.”

But the American roads around here have only gotten bigger and more filled with cars since Updike wrote his books and died. The gas scares of the 1970s and early 80s went away. New gas scares came and also have gone. Route 422 was built and then expanded and now they are expanding it again. When Rabbit is finally dying at the end of Rabbit at Rest, his kid Nelson is screaming and crying. “Don’t die, Dad, don’t,” the kid cries. Rabbit knows he has to say something. He says, “Well, Nelson, all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” •

Photos by Montgomery County Planning Commission via Flickr (Creative Commons), daddy_b via Flickr (Creative Commons), Dennis via Flickr (Creative Commons), Doug Kerr via Flickr (Creative Commons), and Chris Favero via Flickr (Creative Commons).