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What's All This Then?

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The Centaur
by John Updike

Field-Tested by Randy Cohen

in Reading, Pennsylvania

I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania, where John Updike sets much of The Centaur, and where I read it while in my teens. Updike doesn’t call it Reading; he calls it Alton. And for the many William Penn references that dot our town — the main drag is Penn Street — he substitutes another local (and to us locals, inferior) pioneer, Conrad Weiser: Weiser Street, Weiser Square (the scout camp I attended was Camp Conrad Weiser).

The name changes left me oddly let down and thoroughly puzzled. I had a vague sense of Updike’s doing this for the same reason he might rechristen a character based on an actual person: to avoid being sued. Although I couldn’t work out why my town would sue John Updike. That the setting for The Centaur was not, in fact, Reading, but an imagined place inspired by Reading — Updikeville? Updiketon? — did not occur to me.

Then I reached the part about the cough drop factory, minor in the book but important to me. Updike calls them Essick’s Cough Drops, puts the factory on Brubaker Street, and describes the menthol aroma that pierces the air. But it was on Walnut Street that the miasma of Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drops drifted and cloyed, and was where my father spent his working life; not at the cough drop factory, but at a paper company a few doors down. For me, this street, those cough drops, were suffused with feeling. Seeing them in an important work of fiction was even more disappointing than all of that Weiser Street business.

Updike had failed to invest my town with glamour. If the mundane details of my life were to be transmuted into fiction, I wanted straw spun into gold. What I got was straw spun into more straw, but under an assumed name and turned somehow peculiar. After I read The Centaur, my life seemed more limited, more drab.

That’s not what happens when you see a movie that was shot in your neighborhood. Movies sprinkle a bit of glitter onto every block. Books don’t. Movies glamorize; books — good books — reveal. That’s bitter medicine to spoon into a high school kid. No wonder young people don’t read.

Randy Cohen’s first professional work was writing humor pieces, essays, and stories for newspapers and magazines (the New Yorker, Harpers, the Atlantic, Young Love Comics).His first television work was writing for “Late Night With David Letterman,” for which he won three Emmy awards. His fourth Emmy was for his work on “TV Nation.” He received a fifth Emmy as a result of a clerical error, and he kept it. Currently he writes “The Ethicist,” a weekly column for the New York Times Magazine syndicated throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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