"The Coup" by John Updike And Obama`s Parents
August 30, 2012, 01:11 PM
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The Coup was a 1978 bestseller by John Updike about Africa that is almost totally forgotten today, even though it was written by America's most gifted novelist at his mid-40s peak, when he was, in his own words, feeling "full of beans." Thus, it's an absurdly high-spirited first person account of a Muslim Marxist dictator of a drought-stricken African country.

It's interesting that Evelyn Waugh's African novel Scoop remains much discussed in the 21st Century, and Waugh's earlier African novel Black Mischief remains well-known, while The Coup has vanished.

The extraordinary lucidity of Scoop's prose has helped it endure because it is the rare novel that is both brilliant and an easy read. In contrast, Updike was feeling his oats in The Coup, and the style is over the top: William F. Buckley published a column in 1978 saying that while people accuse him of using sesquipedalian words too much, here's a list of all the words in The Coup that he doesn't know the meaning of. I recall feeling proud that, being a good Boy Scout, I knew a word that WFB didn't: scree.

While trying to look up that WFB column, I found this 1996 Paris Review interview with Buckley:

I occasionally run into stuff that deeply impresses me. For instance, Updike’s The Coup, which I reviewed for New York magazine. It astonishes me that it is so little recognized.
It’s the brilliant put-down of Marxist Third World nativism. It truly is. And hilarious. It’s a successor to Black Mischief, but done in that distinctively Gothic style of Updike’s—very different from the opéra bouffe with which Evelyn Waugh went at that subject fifty years ago.

Updike's basic message in his 1978 novel was: America is going to win the Cold War. Capitalism makes people happier than Communism does, so these Third World Marxist dictators you read about in the newspapers all the time are going to lose.

This conclusion was not at all obvious in the Carter Era. When I read it in the tumultuous summer of 1980, I was surprised by Updike's optimism.
The Coup, however, has vanished from all memory. Almost nobody, for instance, noticed how similar the President's parents were to The Coup's ambitious African student narrator and his white American coed second wife. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the New Republic in 1979:

Ellelloû is, or was, a devout Muslim, and a jargon-ridden Marxist whose hatred for all things American—"America, that fountainhead of obscenity and glut"—is explained partly by the fact that he attended a small college in Franchise, Wisconsin where he received an unfair grade of B- in African history, from a trendy professor who was jealous of his relationship with a white girl named Candy, and partly by the fact that he married this girl and brought her back to his kingdom, where their marriage quickly deteriorated. (Candy, called "Pinktoes" by the blacks she compulsively pursues, is coarse-mouthed, nagging, stereotyped as any cartoon suburban wife; even her most ostensibly idealistic actions—like marrying a ragamuffin Negro who seemed so lonely at college—are motivated by cliched notions of "liberalism." And of course she marries Ellelloû to enrage her bigoted father.)


Candy is probably closer to Ruth, Obama Sr.'s third wife, who married him in Boston and moved with him to Kenya, where she got to know him well enough to hate him. Oates continues:

in sharp contrast to [the narrator's] indefatigable syntactical acrobatics the other voices of the novel are either flat and silly or a parody of US advertising rhythm and jargon. ... Candy greets his infrequent visits with "Holy Christ, look who it isn't," refuses to listen to his formal Islamic pronouncements which are, to her, "Kismet crap," and says of his strategic execution of the old king: "Well, chief, how's top-level tricks? Chopping old Edumu's noggin off didn't seem to raise the humidity any."

Oates compared it to Nabokov's comic novel about a deposed ruler, Pale Fire, and it's in that class.

I presume that Obama has at least started to read it. I'd be interested to know his reaction to it. In Dreams from My Father, he describes his acute distress reading on the airplane on the way to Kenya, The Africans by David Lamb, a straightforward account by the L.A. Times' Nairobi correspondent of post-colonial African dysfunction. Updike's The Coup would have hit even closer to home.

In 2008, Updike endorsed Obama and recommended he read The Coup:

For Obama I'd recommend a novel of mine called The Coup. It's about an imaginary African country where the dictator pretends to hate the US, though he actually went to college here. The politics were based on Gaddafi - what's he called, not Mohamed, Muammar, right? The joke is how unlike Obama my character is!


Of course, as far as I can tell from Google, Updike, me, and about one other person in the history of the Internet have ever publicly noticed the connection between The Coup and Obama's parents. It would be interesting to ask Obama about it, but nobody ever has. Because that would be interesting.