“The Gun Shop” (1972)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections.
[Written in Ipswich in 1972,”The Gun Shop” was published in the Feb. 25, 1972 issue of The New Yorker, collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
A three-generational story of Thanksgiving and guns. Murray is an avid gun enthusiast. He’s 14. He lives in Boston with his parents and two sisters, where “his tantrums loomed impressively in the intimate scale of their Boston apartment,” in a way that they did not in the open. He often has tantrums. He’s spoiled. His parents let him terrorize the family. He is rude. He is self-centered. When, turning 14, at his birthday party, his father Ben “had tapped the child on the back of the head to settle him down, […] his son had pointed the cake knife at his father’s chest and said, ‘Hit me again and I’ll kill you.'” He was not kidding. (He sounds like a little Adam Lanza in the making.)
When his .22 goes on the fritz, from a pin not being where it should be, thus preventing the gun from firing, he looses it. He’s disappointed that his father can’t fix it. They’re in Pennsylvania, visiting Ben’s father and mother. Ben’s father, ailing, never named, has a strained relationship with Ben, much like Updike had with his father. The old man knows a gun shop owner who could help, though it’s Thanksgiving. His name is Dutch. He invites them over in the evening, “when all the fuss has died down.” That sets up the story’s central dynamic of three generations reacting toward and against each other, reflecting, in those reactions, each man’s past and assumptions, disappointments, presumptions. Ben’s father is in awe of his son, too much so for Ben’s comfort. Ben finds his father aggravating, but in the gun shop Ben’s father is in his element again, he’s on his home turf, he knows everyone and Ben knows no one. He can be the “interlocutor,” he can be relevant again.
It’s Murray’s first experience of a gun shop. Oddly, it’s a new experience for Ben, too, who’d seen the shop only from a distance when he was young. He had skirted adventures. “There was that about being his father’s son: one had adventures, one blundered into places, one went places, met strangers, suffered rebuffs, experienced breakdowns, exposed oneself in a way that Ben, as soon as he was able, foreclosed, hedging his life with such order and propriety that no misstep could occur.” Much like Updike. (Ben is a lawyer.)
Another man, Reiner, is at the counter, telling stories, speaking guns. Beers are passed around. Reiner describes the lethality of certain bullets, ripping off arms in the Vietnamese jungle, making ben uncomfortable at the gore his son was hearing. All the while Dutch is mending the rifle. Murray discovers that his grandpa was a World War I veteran. never saw any action though. “We were going to board in Hoboken the day of the Armistice.” Back home, Ben tries to describe the adventure to his wife. “The whole place smelled of death. I think the kid was a little frightened.” He wasn’t. Ben had been frightened.
With half a page left to the story, the reader waits, suspended, for something more. It doesn’t come. Rather, Updike resorts to what, by now (having used it so often in previous stories and novels), is a cop-out of a device, because he has nothing else: the dream. It’s an injection of heavy-handed symbolism the story would have been better off without, had it ended where Updike had legitimately run out of ammunition. Ben dreams of being a boy with a gun, aiming the gun, shooting a bird that falls like a stone. “There was not much blood, just headless feathers. He awoke, and realized it was real. It had happened just that way, the first summer he had had the gun. He had been horrified.” The irruption of death, and the fear of death.
After breakfast Ben and his son go to the dump to shoot at cans. Ben fails. Murray, with his “murderous concentration” (Lanza latent) succeeds. “‘You’re killing me!’ Ben cried. In his relief and pride, he had to laugh.”
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|