Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Updike reminds us what it's like to be twenty

A month ago, Patrick Kurp, on his Anecdotal Evidence blog, mentioned in passing a John Updike story, "The Happiest I've Been," first published in the New Yorker in 1959. Patrick described the story as,
the best fictional treatment I know of the exhilarating free-fall between high school and college, adolescence and faux-adulthood.
We all have those writers whom we've simply failed to read, not through distaste or deliberate choice, but simply because, as Hussain Haddawy put it in the introduction to his translation of some of the Arabian Nights stories, "There are other fair creatures in the world." Updike has long been one of mine, wholly unread--though in recent years I've been edging closer: I read Nicholson Baker's U and I, and sentence after sentence that he quoted impressed me, as did his--and other writers'--tales of Updike's courtesy and kindness, the notes he would send to young writers whose work he appreciated, the professionalism with which he seemed to approach his work. For all that I enjoy reading about the Byrons of the world, my heart (to say nothing of my admiration) is with those artists who evince kindness and courtesy.

Patrick's praise was enough. I sought out "The Happiest I've Been"--and if all you want to know is whether Patrick is right, you can stop reading here: the first thing I did after reading it was make two copies to send to friends. It's that good, full of sharp observations expressed in sentences whose every word seems diligently labored over, glowing with a sense that it was chosen through deliberation aiming at perfection rather than the logorrhea of chance.

The story, told in the first person, relates a night-long party in the narrator's hometown, a party to which he's taken unexpectedly by a friend with whom he's supposed to be sharing a ride to Chicago a few days before the end of the Christmas break of his freshman year of college. He only learns of the party after he's been loaded into the car, and, "In everything that followed there was this sense of my being picked up and carried somewhere."

That's a feeling that will be familiar, I suspect, to anyone who was fortunate enough to ease into their twenties largely in the company of others who were doing the same--and a feeling that most of us rarely re-encounter in later years. What Updike does brilliantly is to show us all the ever-varying vantage points we had on those moments: enjoyment and abandon, uncertainty and isolation, confusion and anticipation. "The party was the party I had been going to all my life," the narrator notes: a girl cries and dances at the same time; three former athletes, "still . . . with that well-coordinated looseness, a look of dangling on strings," crash the party, then disappear silently into the basement; the host plays the same jazz record over and over and over, deliberately soaking in melancholy.

When the host's parents return home, the narrator realizes that they, too, see the same party they've always seen: "It was a pleasant joke to see in their smiles that, however corrupt and unwinking we felt, to them we looked young and sleepy: Larry's friends." But the few months that the narrator has been away have been enough to make him feel estranged. At one point he wanders off and buries himself for a while in the first book he finds, the second volume of Henry Esmond; at another, the sight of a pile of shoes discarded by the girls at the party brings unexpected emotion:
Sitting alone and ignored in a great armchair, I experienced within a warm keen dishevelment, as if there were real tears in my eyes. Had things been less unchanged, they would have seemed less tragic. But the girls who had stepped out of these shoes were, with few exceptions, the ones who had attended my life's party. The alterations were so small: a haircut, an engagement ring, a tendency toward plumpness more frankly confessed. While they wheeled above me I sometimes caught from their faces an unfamiliar glint, off of a hardness I did not remember, as if beneath their skins these girls were growing more dense. The brutality added to the features of the boys I knew seemed a more willed effect, more desired and so less grievous.
These are the people he knew, but he no longer knows them; he wonders "at the easy social life that evidently existed among my friends at three-thirty in the morning." And later, his sense of being out of time and place, focused on one person and one relationship, reaches an acuity that verges on cruelty:
So I talked to Margaret about Larry, and she responded, showing really quite an acute sense of him. To me, considering the personality of a childhood friend so seriously, as if overnight he had become a factor in the world, seemed absurd; I couldn't even deeply believe that in her world he mattered much. Larry Schuman, in little more than a year, had become nothing to me.
That's the moment that Updike recreates so well in this story and carries through to a perfect ending: the time when we've worked enough slack into our family ties to feel free and the ties to old friends--stripped of the circumstances that catalyzed them--have atrophied to the point of inexplicability, yet the claims of our future have not yet been made. At twenty, on the right night in the right circumstances, we are as close to being free as we ever will be--and, briefly, it can seem like the best possible way to live.

1 comment:

  1. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.