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. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.
[“Nevada,” originally titled “Sluts and Slots,” was written in Ipswich in 1972, published in the January 1974 issue of Playboy, collected in Problems, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
Writing “Nevada,” Updike was still about 18 months away from moving out of his Labor-in-Vain home in Ipswich and divorcing Mary Pennington, but he was increasingly, repeatedly rehearsing the move in successive stories, and by then had already written Marry Me, what he called “a romance,” which tells the story of his break-up. He kept the novel from being published for years to spare Mary’s feelings. But in his mind and heart, the deed was undone.
In “Nevada,” Culp–one of the more obvious names of the Updike canon–is picking up his two daughters Laura, 16, and Polly, 11, in Reno to drive them back to the ex-conjugal home in Denver, because wife Sarah was in too much of a hurry to take advantage of her honeymoon suite in Honolulu. What follows are the 48 hours of the road trip home, with strange racist non-sequiturs by the two young girls, the first not two pages in, when Polly complains of “all these Mexicans” using her precious motel swimming pool for a bathroom. Laura is on her period. She’s growing up. She feels motherly toward her father, with hints of something a little more than motherly here and there. Hints that Culp finds himself rebuffing, as when she tries to sleep in his bed rather than Polly’s in one motel. Polly meanwhile has an affinity for slots. She keeps pressing her father to play them. “She loved the slot machines, loved them for their fruity colors and their sleepless glow and their sudden gush of release, jingling, lighting, as luck struck now here, now there, across the dark casino.”
Along the way there’s a lot of descriptive sight-seeing of Nevada, a state that draws the parachuting observer in most of us, usually without going much further than the flat light, the slots, the sand, the emptiness and the Strip. Fortunately for this story, it steers clear of Vegas, back then wheezing through the end of a sleazier chapter before the 1980s began to Disneyfy it. One typically pithy but silly observation: “There were churches, which he hadn’t expected.” “Elko was a flat town, full of space, as airy with emptiness as an old honeycomb.” Much funnier: “Dad, here’s a own called Nixon.” “Let’s go feel sorry for it.” But the girls do feel sorry for him, their dad. He resents it even as he plays “movies” in his head of Sarah in various scenes as she gradually evaded the marriage.
It is Laura who makes the remark, remembering her unhappy days in Reno with her mother and her new beau, that summed up her Nevada: “Slots and slits, that’s all there is in this dumb state.” It’s not the only stereotype. There is also Laura’s inexplicable bigotry moments later when she rejects her sister’s claim that she’d been showing off for a Mexican at the pool: “I wasn’t showing off for any bunch of spics, I was practicing my diving…” As with Polly’s bigoted remark earlier Culp doesn’t react. The question is: why the remark to start with, in this context, in this story? It is disconnected from everything else, other than to suggest that this is a family of casual bigots who probably think more highly of themselves.
It is also, once again, a display of the Updike “sensibility” regarding minorities: in the nearly one hundred stories to date, almost every reference to minorities has been between negative, demeaning and outright bigoted. There’s no question that the 1950s and 60s were bigoted decades. But in every instance? With every character who, however rarely, encounters blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Italians? (Remember Ace’s trifecta against Jews, Catholics and Italians in “Ace in the Hole“?) With Polly and Laura, is Updike just venting? Is he being that carelessly gratuitous? Later in the story Laura is reading a book on the persecution of the Indian and the trio goes to see a Western where Burt Lancaster kills nine hirelings of a racist rancher. Maybe that’s meant to atone for the earlier behavior.
Not to leave out the misogyny: Laura also, hoping to ingratiate herself with her father, because she doesn’t want to go back to Reno, snidely refers to a waitress as a prostitute who turned on her dad. “Laura, I’m not sure you know what a prostitute is.” “Mom said every woman is a prostitute, one way or another.” “You know your mother exaggerates.” “I know she’s a bitch, you mean.” Updike venting again? But it’s Culp who acts the slut, picking up a woman and spending half the night with her before returning to his girls’ room at 4 a.m. Laura pretends not to have been worried, prompting the final, unconvincing line from Culp, who wears his name well by then: “Listen. It’s not your job to take care of me. It’s my job to take care of you.” It was, anyway.
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|