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A Rural Youth is Curated in John Updike's 'Olinger Stories'

John Updike is able to highlight the details of domestic life in a way that turns the mundane into something sacred and significant.


Olinger Stories

Publisher: Everyman's Library
Length: 224 pages
Author: John Updike
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
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According to Louis Menand's article Imitation of Life ("Louis Menand – Imitation of Life", The New Yorker, 28 April 2014), when John Updike worked as at staff writer at The New Yorker, his two editors, Katherine White (wife of E.B. White) and William Maxwell, disagreed over what Updike should be writing. White thought Updike should pen satire and shun "a young man looks back nostalgically at his basketball-playing days"-type articles, whereas Maxwell thought this “wistful reminiscence“ was Updike's strength.

Thankfully, Updike agreed with Maxwell – a decision that made the late author a literary giant. Updike's predilection for writing about the loss of innocence and questions of faith peppered much of his early work, and there's no better illustration of this fondness for nostalgia than his collection, Olinger Stories.

Originally curated by the author, the collection includes 11 stories from his first years published in The New Yorker between 1954-62. The anthology was originally printed in 1964 as a paperback by Vintage Books, but has been out of print for nearly 40 years. Thankfully, the Everyman's “Pocket Classics Series“ edition was published in October to commemorate the book's 50th anniversary and it's debut in hardcover.

Updike found inspiration in writing about his youth and believed that a writer should write about what he knows. “An imitation of the life we know, however narrow, is our only ground,” he once wrote in an essay titled "Why Write?"

In the forward to the Vintage collection (which is reprinted in the Everyman's edition), Updike revealed his fictitious town of Olinger “(pronounced with a long O, a hard g, and the emphasis on the first syllable)“ is based on his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania. He wrote that the difference between the two is that “Shillington is a place on the map and belongs to the world; Olinger is a state of mind, of my mind, and belongs entirely to me."

Like the town, the characters in Olinger Stories come from Updike's personal recollections. In the foreword to Updike's collection The Early Stories, he referred to the substance of the book as “the only child, the small town, the grandparental home, the move in adolescence to a farm." Updike admitted that the young man in the stories wears "different names and his circumstances vary, but he is at bottom the same boy". Updike arranged the stories according to the boy's age; beginning the book when he is ten and ending the book when he has become a young man.

While Updike based many characters not only on himself and on his family members, in John Updike: The Early Years author Jack De Bellis discloses that Updike also used various former classmates as the wellspring for his stories. The second story of the collection, "Alligators", serves as a perfect example. Written about a new girl named Joan Edison, who clashes with the fifth graders of Olinger Elementary when she arrives with her "show-off clothes" and "long black eyelashes like a doll's", the tale was based on a girl Updike knew in school named Jackie Himeisen. According to De Bellis, Updike's old friend Billy Forry become Neil Hovey in "The Happiest I've Ever Been", which was based on a party Updike and his classmates went to one evening before he drove to Chicago and proposed to his first wife, Mary.

Despite the fact that Updike mined his personal life for fictional material is interesting, it's not the most important element of the book. The shimmering accounts of life in rural Pennsylvania, and the fully realized characters that populate them, are the work of an expert craftsman. Updike is able to highlight the details of domestic life in a way that turns the mundane into something sacred and significant.

In "Sense of Shelter", Updike describes looking out classroom windows onto a snow-filled parking lot with such passion, the scene is arresting. The protagonist, Mip, felt he and his fellow classmates “were all sealed in, safe; the colors of cloth were dyed deeper .... the smells of table paper and wet shoes and varnish and face powder pierced him with a sharp sense of possession." In the scene Updike defines unification in disaster, even if that unification is between a group of high school students and the disaster is a snowstorm outside.

In "Friends from Philadelphia", Updike seizes the anxiety of young lust with just a few lines: "In the moment before the door was opened to him, he glimpsed her thigh below the half-drawn shade. Thelma was home then. She was wearing the Camp Winniwoho T-shirt and her quite short shorts." The narrator, 16-year-old John, is not only looking for Thelma from afar before he approaches her parents' house, he knows the particular T-shirt she is wearing.

In the same story Updike captures a time in American history when youth was a more carefree occasion. The reason for John's visit to Thelma Lutz's parents is to ask them to drive him to the liquor store in order to get some wine for his parents' dinner party. While waiting for Mr. Lutz to get home from work, Mrs. Lutz offers John a cigarette, and when Mr. Lutz arrives, he not only takes John to buy some wine, he asks him to drive the car.

Religious faith plays a starring role in Updike's work, beginning with the stories in this collection, particularly "Pigeon Feathers", in which 13-year-old David struggles with his belief in God. David scans the Bible for insight, asks adults – his parents and his priest – for answers, but gets more questions, instead. It isn't until he examines a dead pigeon, more particularly "the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers" that his faith is restored. Updike pins to the page the existential crises many of us grapple with in childhood.

Updike treasured these stories. In his foreword, he wrote that if he had to pick any collection to best represent him, Olinger Stories would be the one. Heeding his advice, this anthology with its sewn-in bookmark and easy-to-tuck-in-your-bag functionality is perfect for the reader who is new to Updike, as well as the seasoned fan.

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