“Ace in the Hole” (1954)
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.
[“Ace in the Hole” was published in the April 9, 1955 issue of The New Yorker, collected in The Same Door, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
Just as all of Western literature is contained in the Illiad and the Odyssey, all of Updike’s oeuvre, as he loved to call it, is contained in his first short story, the second to be published by The New Yorker–on April 9, 1955, a few days after Jim Henson creates the first incarnation of Kermit the Frog, and exactly 56 days after Eisenhower sends the first “advisers” to South Vietnam. It’s all there: the restlessness, the exasperating marriage, the protagonist’s colossal self-absorption, the overbearing mother, the constricting wife, the eternal conjugal calculations, the indifferent universe, the affectionate, compulsively described details of ordinary life, the playfulness and love of language.
Also there: Updike’s compulsion for re-editing his works long after they’ve been published or re-published. First written for a creative writing class at Harvard in 1953 and titled “Flick,” The New Yorker at first rejected the story when Updike submitted it as a senior. After the magazine accepted “Friends From Philadelphia,” Updike reworked it and called it “Ace in the Hole.” It was accepted. (Updike, always the clever boy, memorialized “Flick” by changing, in the first line, “snapped on the radio” to “flicked on the radio.”) But it wasn’t reworked beyond the title change and the name change of its protagonist. Updike would edit it significantly more when he prepared it for publication in The Early Stories in 2003, making some changes that look unnecessary, if not literarily pretentious.
It’s the story of an afternoon in the life of Ace Anderson. He’s just been fired from his job at a used car dealer’s for backing a car into another car. On his way home he stops by his mother’s to pick up his infant daughter. His mother is glad he got fired. Gladder still that it’ll create tensions with his wife Evie, whom his mother does not like. “…any time Evey thinks she can do better, there’s room for you and Bonnie right in your father’s house.” In the New Yorker version of the exchange, his mother doesn’t go further. In the revised version, Updike inserted her saying this: “Evie is a wonderful girl of her own kind. But I’ve always said, and your father agrees, Roman Catholics ought to marry among themselves. Now, I know I’ve said it before, but when they get out in the greater world–”
A few paragraphs earlier, the “us-and-them” theme was also edited in in the 2003 version. In the New Yorker version, Ace says of his boss: “He just wanted too much for his money. I didn’t mind working the Saturdays…” In the last version, Updike inserted between the two sentences: That kind does. Meaning Jews. Later in the story, the 2003 version inserts yet another racist line: “He felt sorry he had called the kid in the car a wop.” Catholics, Jews and Italians, all shoveled in Ace’s hole. It makes you wonder: why, after almost fifty years, make three editing changes that are intently bigoted, and that neither add anything to the story nor relate to anything else in the story (a recurring weakness in Updike: detail upon detail is elucidated in one part of a story with no connection whatsoever to other parts, underscoring his mode of describing for its own sake).
After the encounter with his mother, Ace runs home. He lives close enough. It’s the running theme warming up. He dumps his daughter in her crib and goes off to the bathroom to admire himself in the mirror, fussing with his hair. The narcissus theme warming up. Then the encounter with Evey. Ace isn’t taking getting fired seriously. Evey isn’t taking him seriously anymore. “I’m fed up. I’m ready as Christ to let you run.” (“Ah: runs. Runs.” The last words of Rabbit, Run. But Evey is no “mutt,” as Janice was in the early Rabbit books. “I’m not your baby,” Evey says. But the story ends with Ace dancing with her. “Her hair brushed his lips as she minced in, then swung away, to the end of his arm; he could feel her toes dig into the carpet. He flipped his own hair back from his eyes. The music ate through his skin and mixed with the nerves and small veins; he seemed to be great again, and all the other kids were around them, in a ring, clapping time.” It’s the lunge back to golden years, the past always being better than the present, far better than the future.
The story lacks the latter Updike style, the mannered similes and strained metaphors, but it’s taut, brisk, and surprisingly gripping given Ace’s fuck-you attitude. Bad boys are more interesting than tame ones. Updike is warming up our cockles for Harry Angstrom, five years away.
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|