“Friends from Philadelphia” (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.
[“Friends From Philadelphia,” Written in South Duxbury, Vermont, in 1954, was published in the Oct. 30, 1954 issue of The New Yorker, collected in The Same Door, Olinger Stories, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
After The New Yorker accepted “Duet, for Muffled Drums,” a poem (a take-off on a Rolls Royce ad in the New Yorker), as John Updike’s very first contribution to the magazine, “Friends from Philadelphia was the first story editor Katharine White accepted (for $490), and the second to run in the magazine (after “Ace in the Hole“). It is a short, sharp, jolting look inside the young author’s class consciousness. When he went to Harvard he considered himself a hick from a small town. He tried to maintain that persona throughout his life even after it became an untenable pretense with his early success. But “Friends from Philadelphia” was written from a genuine sense of unease, with an equally genuine touch of the mischievous and the sexual. Updike is tumescent.
It’s an important story for many reasons, not least of them its sheer arresting quality, spare as it is. It is the first of the Olinger stories, the first to feature John Nordholm, the late teen very distantly related to Salinger’s precocious teens. John is sent on an errand. The Nordholms are having friends over. Those friends are well to do, sophisticates from the big city. John’s father isn’t home from teaching in school yet and may not make it before the liquor store closes. The liquor store wouldn’t sell anything to him. He goes to the Lutz’s house, hoping Mr. Lutz could help. The Lutzes have a teenage daughter already stirring John’s stirrables. The story opens with the prototypical Updike image of lust glimpsed at a distance, not ready for prime time: “In the moment before the door was opened to him, he glimpsed her thigh below the half-drawn shade. Thelma was home, then.”
Mr. Lutz agrees to drive him to the store. What had started as the mixture of a silent flirtation and an uncomfortable request turns into an occasion for Lutz to score one on the Nordholms, starting with the “huge blue Buick” he drove. He is an ostentatious man. He wants it known. He revels in it by putting others down. It is presumably John’s first encounter with the sort of macho one-upmanship Updike’s characters will often engage in (starting with “Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow,” when John Nordholm’s equivalent is just out of college). The serrated cruelty of this situation is that Lutz, being a bully, doesn’t have the grace to pick on someone his own size. He scores against John’s father at John’s expense.
He humiliates him by asking the year of his father’s Plymouth, knowing it’s almost 15 years old. It’s a set up. “Now, isn;t this funny, John? Here is your father, an educated man, with an old Plymouth, yet at the same time I, who never read more than ten, twenty books in my life… It doesn’t seem as if there is justice.” He then offers to let John give the car a test drive. All this time Thelma is in the back seat. Her father is subtly letting her know who’s boss. Who has money, who doesn’t. The reader hasn’t forgotten that John is on the hunt for a fairly good bottle of wine designed to impress the guests from Philadelphia.
And then the twist. They get to the liquor store. Lutz gets out. John recalls him, gives him the two dollars his parents gave him. “My mother said to get something inexpensive but nice.” As the two teens wait in the car they exchange a few words, dare themselves to smoke from a pack in the glove compartment, and do, then Lutz returns and drives John home. There. John prompts him” Say, Mr. Lutz. I wonder if there was any change?” John at that point is thinking Lutz is going to swipe what remained of the money. Lutz hands him back $1.26. John is worried that the wine Lutz bought is much too cheap. They say goodbye. They part.
“The car pulled out, and John walked up the path. […] The bottle was cool and heavy in his hands. He glanced at the label; it read Château Mouton-Rothschild 1937.” A Mouton-Rothschild of 20 years’ vintage today would run you from $300 to $600. You can take the ending either way: massive, uncouth showing off on Lutz’s part, telegraphed to John’s father and mother. Or a crude, massive display of generosity by a man who doesn’t know better. Updike’s disposition would have been to the latter. As an author he’d made his point about class differences. As a romantic, he accepted the grand gesture without reading further into it.
“[T]he bottle of wine that ends ‘Friends from Philadelphia’ owes something to the Easter chick found in the bottom of the wastebasket at the end of ‘Just Before the War With the Eskimos,'” Updike wrote in his Foreword to The Early Stories (2003), referring to the Salinger story. Always the keen critic, the Foreword provides as authoritative an insight as any into Updike’s sources for the hundred or so stories to come in his early years. “But my main debt, which may not be evident, was to Hemingway; it was he who showed us all how much tension and complexity unalloyed dialogue can convey, and how much poetry lurks in the simplest nouns and predicates. Other eye-openers for me were Franz Kafka and John O’Hara, Mary McCarthy and John Cheever, Donald Bartheleme and Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce and James Thurber and Anton Chekhov.”
“Looking back ten years later,” Adam Begley writes in Updike, his biography, “he had the impression that ‘Friends from Philadelphia’ was written by someone to whom ‘everything outside Olinger— Harvard, marriage, Vermont— seemed relatively unreal.’
That will not last.
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|