One of my favorite short stories of all time is John Updike’s A&P. If I could do anything – I wish I could write like this:
Text of A&P
Go ahead – read it now. It’s not very long – it won’t take up much time.
I read this story in college. For a chemist, I took a lot of literature classes. Most of them were honors level courses – and looking back, I didn’t get much out of them. They were very intellectual and were interested in ferreting out symbolism and deconstructing the text… and now, decades later, I realize they completely missed the point of what we were reading. My fiction writing classes were worse than useless; they set my writing ability back so far I’m only now, in my fifties, beginning to unlearn the false dreck violently stuffed into my young head.
After having exhausted my allotted supply of honors courses, I tacked on an ordinary English class – The Art of the Short Story. Basically, we cranked through a textbook that contained one hundred classic stories and wrote three papers or so a week. Our instructor was intimidated by the classroom setting so we met in a bar, talking about literature while we drank cheap yellow 3.2 beer from schooners, listening to each other’s conversation, and watching rivulets of condensation run down the thick glass.
This was a revelation. There was none of the vicious oneupmanship of the honors classes or the viscous boredom of the scholarship. It was true, lively banter where everyone was able to bring a different point of view along with some fresh ideas.
I’m sure I wrote an essay on A&P, but don’t remember what my angle was. I was working at a gas station over break back then and I remember really liking the paragraph where Updike writes about the sounds an old-fashioned cash register makes. He had it exactly right.
I go through the punches, 4, 9, GROC, TOT — it’s more complicated than you think, and after you do it often enough, it begins to make a lttle song, that you hear words to, in my case “Hello (bing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat)”-the splat being the drawer flying out.
The other day, after all these years, I discovered a short film version of the story. You should be able to watch it at this link – courtesy of SPIKE TV of all things:
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I stumbled across this short looking up information on the new Three Stooges Movie. The guy in the short will play Larry in the Stooges movie, and, of course, you remember the actress that plays the girl, Queenie, from Road Trip.
I’m glad that they made this short. I am very glad I saw it. However, like any time a visual representation is made about a piece of literature that was important to you, I’m disappointed at some of the changes they made in the presentation.
The video doesn’t really fit my impression of the story… I think it’s the cutsie music. Or maybe the Ipswich accents.
The short story is edgier than the video suggests.
I didn’t like the scene where he imagines meeting Queenie at the party (though I suppose they had to pad it out somehow). It makes the story more of a romance fantasy, or a poor boy/rich girl story… which it is not. It is a much more fundamental conflict at work here – an elemental question of values.
And worst of all, all though the short has no qualms about presenting the protagonist’s internal dialog in voice over, it leaves out the last, most powerful bit. I’m talking about the last half of the last sentence of the story. The internal dialog that contains the horror of the story. The voice over says his stomach fell, but it doesn’t say why.
The story does.
I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’djust had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.
“how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” I still remember reading these words in college and the fear that they struck in me.