Not going to say I cut my teeth on this story, quite. What I cut my teeth on, short-fiction-wise, would be Ellen Datlow’s selections for OMNI, way back when. Those stories didn’t just sustain me, they molded me. Recently, when OMNI started all over again, I was maybe going to be in issue #2, even, which would have so wonderfully full-circle. But then, like all good things (he said cynically), it fell apart. Anyway, no, I didn’t cut my teeth on John Updike’s seminal story “A&P.” Where I was introduced to literary short fiction was my third year of undergrad, and it was Tobias Wolff. And you can do a whole lot worse than Tobias Wolff. It was him and Antonya Nelson and Kate Braverman and Mary Gaitskill, THEN it was Raymond Carver, then I was going back to find Flannery O’Connor and kind of playing catch up for a couple years, just reading everything, finally washing up in grad school clutching The Pugilist at Rest and The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Jesus’ Son , and always keeping a weather out for more Rick Bass or Tony Earley or Lee K Abbot or Stephen Dixon. For a long time I would say, when asked, that “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “A&P” were the three ‘core’ twentieth century American stories. But then I remembered where I’m from; these days, sure, those first two are still core for me, but I’d also work in “Bloodchild” and “It’s a Good Life.” I really want “The Monkey’s Paw” in there too, but that’s not American, and for some reason I’m limiting myself like that. And, yeah, where’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” right? It’s still there, but I’m way over here—never could tolerate Hemingway muscular pose on the page, and my fascinations don’t match up with Faulkner’s, finally (though I do dig his loopy prose). Fitzgerald and Woolf, yeah, though, how not to fall in some kind of love with them?
ANYWAY, what I’m meaning to say is that I was taught “A&P” young, or early—both, I guess—and since then I never really questioned it, just kept on running it past students when we’re talking about epiphanies and Charles Baxter, all that. And, yes, I should probably use Joyce as the example there, except, man, I know I’m supposed to be all into Dubliners and be ready to die on whatever hill for the way “The Dead” ends, but . . . I don’t know. They’re kind of boring to me, and not Chekhov-boring, which is sometimes pretty excellent. More just boring-boring, which I know says more about me than Dubliners. Maybe someday I’ll re-read his short stuff and a light bulb will flicker on my head, I don’t know.
So, to smoothly transition: earlier this semester I’m talking about “A&P” with a class, right? Only, class is kind of just playing along, just going through the motions. They’re even, it seems to me, a bit uncomfortable with this story. I write it off to a slow week or me overloading them with stuff or maybe I’m teaching it wrong. So, after class, week or so after, I go back, I look at the story again, trying to see it like they might have. And, I guess everybody else already knew this? And, how did I never see it? But, man, Sammy’s romantic-tragic disillusionment at the end, it’s NOT because of this seemingly momentous gesture he’s just made that’s going to send ripples through the rest of his life, it’s because THE GIRLS AREN’T WAITING IN THE PARKING LOT FOR HIM, TO SEE THAT DISILLUSIONMENT, and perhaps somehow reward him for it. Just with attention, or sympathy.
Which is to say: he’s blaming them for who he is now. The point-of-narration here, I mean, it’s long after these events, it’s some distinct interpretive distance from that afternoon at the A&P. And Sammy’s looking back all the way TO it, and identifying not just this afternoon as the point everything changed for him, but these three girls. His complications begin when they’re not there, when his gesture is more self-destructive than appreciated.
And I’ve been pushing this story on students for nearly twenty years. I mean, yeah, I’ver undercut it, I’ve had students go in, write from Queenie’s POV, from all three girls’ points-of-view, from Stokesie’s angle, from the manager’s, but I’ve always come back and, I think, ickily enough, finally identified with Sammy at the end, alone in that parking lot, no job, just the new weight of knowing that principle is what he’s going to order his life around, not making every situation easier.
Except that’s not what it’s about, is it? It’s about blaming women FOR every situation since not having been easier. It’s about making ‘heroic’ gestures even WHEN they’re not cued in enough to watch, and appreciate.
Anyway, I don’t deny that craft and economy and voice of this story. When Updike was just starting out, wasn’t speaking from a position of authority, didn’t have the publishing weight to just blather on about nothing for way too long, dude could really swing a scene, could really land a line. That doesn’t mean I can even start to go along with “A&P” anymore, though, product of its time or not. If it’s to be OF the early sixties or whenever, then let’s leave it there, yes? At least, from here on out, that’s what I’ll be doing. There’s plenty more stories that are executed just as well, right? From then and from now.
Which is to say: this has now been the last semester I teach that story. Well, unless I use it as example. As bad, dangerous example. “This is how we used to be, can you believe it? But then the monolith came, and we got better.”
Let’s all get better, I say. We don’t have to read this story anymore. It’s written well enough to disarm us, leave us open to the infection of thinking like it promotes. Yeah, Sammy, you grew up, and life was hard from here on out. But I bet it was harder for Queenie and her friends.