I’d like to begin this post by asking readers what they think of John Updike, as a novelist, as a critic, as a poet, and as a short story writer. That question is open even to those who haven’t read him. Perhaps it’s even better more of those readers answer, because I’d like perceptions of Updike as much as I’d like evaluations. It seems to me that he’s been falling out of fashion since his death in January 2009. These days, it’s more likely I’ll hear someone mock him than see someone reading his work. I may be misreading the times, of course, and, at any rate, this is hardly uncommon (may Norman Mailer’s work continue to drift away). Still, when I first read “A & P,” John Updike was one of the most written-about living American novelists.
In fact, “A & P” was the first thing I ever read by John Updike. I was working in a library and found a short story anthology. I remember sitting down in a soft chair and (it was a great job) reading it straight through . . . and having no idea what I had just read. I thought, therefore, that it might be a good place to start some periodic posts on Updike’s short stories, which were recently put together in a fantastic box set by The Library of America (I wrote a bit about the set here).
“A & P,” though not my favorite Updike story, is certainly one of his most famous. I think it is rightly well-regarded. It showcases how Updike can take an every-day ordinary event and open it up, show how it can forever change (maybe) the person who experienced it. That person in “A & P”? Sammy, the nineteen-year-old check-out boy at an A & P grocery store, who happens to be our narrator.
Sammy has grown up, presumably comfortable, in the 1940s and 1950s under the cultural norms of a conventional sea-side town above Boston. At nineteen, he is experiencing his first tastes of independence and independent thinking. By the end of the story, Sammy is going make a gesture of defiance against the culture of his cushy upbringing, and his boss is going to say, “Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad.” Sammy thinks, “It’s true, I don’t.” He’s afraid of disappointing them. He may even be afraid of them. His parents have provided and will continue to provide stability he can depend upon. His boss, someone who has, in a sense, made it through this life, thinks practically. Certain thoughts and attitudes, like those Sammy is entertaining, make life harder to live. Why do that to yourself?
The story begins almost as if the narrator is beginning to tell a joke:
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.
It would be somewhat shocking today to see three girls, who happen to be young teenagers, walk into a grocery store in nothing but bathing suits. Especially two-piece suits, which is the case here. I wasn’t there, but I imagine it was even stranger in 1960, when this story was written. Sure, this is a sea-side town, so girls in bathing suits are common, but not in the A & P. Everyone stops to watch the girls roam around in this setting.
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the florescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checker-board green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.
Essentially, here’s the story: the girls walk in, Sammy’s boss asks them to leave, and Sammy quits. Interestingly, Updike even takes the drama out of the most dramatic event in the book because Sammy doesn’t feel all that good when he walks out. For one thing, he mainly said he was quitting so the girls could hear him and be impressed. For another, it may be fatal to make a gesture and then wimp out, but it may be just as fatal to carry through.
There are many ways to look at this story. There’s the liberation angle. Obviously these girls are flaunting societal norms. They’re causing a scene, and they know it. They are acting inappropriately for all who are watching them. That was the point.They’re defying expectations and conventions. Sammy just wants to do the same, out of solidarity.
Then again, in the end, where does this get the girls? Perhaps a bit of trouble, but they were also subject to the eyes of everyone in that store, and our narrator in particular focuses on every bit of sexual energy their bodies are evoking. He’s invigorated by their gesture and, after his boss asks the girls to leave, decides to make one of his own. Before he makes the gesture, he says, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad, but I don’t think it’s so sad myself.”
When the story ends, the narrator is looking forward to a harder life. He’s a bit nervous, he feels a sinking feeling, but he seems to accept that pushing oneself away from those who support you will make for a difficult but ultimately more rewarding life.
The interesting thing for me is Sammy’s revised reason for standing up to his boss. His dramatic gesture began in the hopes of pleasing some girls he was sexually attracted to; he wasn’t attracted to their principles, except to the extent their principles gave him a long look at their bodies. Yes, he wants the world to be free enough he can ogle at these girls. When they’re turned away, he wants to impress them. When they don’t hear him, he’s tempted to take back his gesture, but he’s too principled — or too arrogant. No, he doesn’t love his parents’ world, but his actions suggest he’s going to fit pretty well in a few years.
As I mentioned when I wrote about the release of the Library of America set, I hope more people will visit Updike’s short stories. For me, his best work is in this form, and I look forward to digging into more.