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The Early Stories: 1953-1975 [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

John Updike
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 21 2003
“He is a religious writer; he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which in substantial intelligent creation will eventually be seen as second to none in our time.”
—William H. Pritchard, The Hudson Review, reviewing Museums and Women (1972)

A harvest and not a winnowing, The Early Stories preserves almost all of the short fiction John Updike published between 1954 and 1975.

The stories are arranged in eight sections, of which the first, “Olinger Stories,” already appeared as a paperback in 1964; in its introduction, Updike described Olinger, Pennsylvania, as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid pattern.” These eleven tales, whose heroes age from ten to over thirty but remain at heart Olinger boys, are followed by groupings titled “Out in the World,” “Married Life,” and “Family Life,” tracing a common American trajectory. Family life is disrupted by the advent of “The Two Iseults,” a bifurcation originating in another small town, Tarbox, Massachusetts, where the Puritan heritage co-exists with post-Christian morals. “Tarbox Tales” are followed by “Far Out,” a group of more or less experimental fictions on the edge of domestic space, and “The Single Life,” whose protagonists are unmarried and unmoored.

Of these one hundred three stories, eighty first appeared in The New Yorker, and the other twenty-three in journals from the enduring Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s to the defunct Big Table and Transatlantic Review. All show Mr. Updike’s wit and verbal felicity, his reverence for ordinary life, and his love of the transient world.

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From Booklist

All Updike needs is the Nobel Prize to complete his list of major awards. In the very early years of his career, he seemed to spring full fledged as a short story writer, so he can hardly be said to have a body of apprentice work, to which this compilation of his early stories attests. They are mature pieces, and the collection contains several stories still considered masterpieces and which continue to appear in anthologies; these would include, of course, "A & P" and "Pigeon Feathers." What is particularly exciting to see is the publication again of his wonderful Olinger stories, particular favorites of Updike fans and, up to this point, out of print. The collection contains a grand total of 102 stories, and most were originally published in the New Yorker, Updike's basic professional residence during these years. But his New Yorker ties should not be considered a drawback to the enjoyment of his work, for his ingenuity, scope, and heart extend far beyond the island of Manhattan. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“Classic gems . . . These stories, like Mr. Updike’s finest novels . . . preserve a time and a place through the sorcery of words.”—The New York Times
“[Updike is] akin to Coleridge and Shelley, only with an American twist. One story at a time, he [reminds] Americans that in spite of life’s largesse, things fail; one sentence at a time, he reveals that through the small details, it can be sublime.”—The Denver Post
“Updike’s artistry—normally glimpsed in sections, like a person through window slats—is wholly and deeply seen. . . . One reads through the plenitude with delight, expectation, and at all times gratitude.”—The Atlantic Monthly

Customer Reviews

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars To sieve or not to sieve Oct. 26 2009
I am a long-standing fan of Updike's short stories (though less so of his novels), and my three-star rating of this book is not a reflection of my general opinion of him as a writer. Nevertheless, I do have some issues with this particular volume.

I think that it was a mistake to collect over 100 short stories under one cover with virtually no sieving. Updike made his living from writing and, and as far as I understand, he never held a regular job after he resigned from the New Yorker at the age of 25 - so I would be the last person to blame him for having published some short stories that were not quite to his general standard. When a small collection contains a couple of such works, this is usually not a problem. The situation inevitably becomes different on a scale of 100+ samples: the gap in quality between the best 10 and the weakest 10 of them is massive, and it is impossible not to notice this. I do not think that exposing his lesser works against the background of so many great stories found in this volume has done Updike's standing any good. I own virtually all collections of short stories ever published by him, and in my opinion he emerges a better author from each of his individual early collections than from this volume that combines their content.

I did not like the fact that while putting together this book Updike decided to change a few things here and there. In particular, the last sentence of the wonderful 'Dentistry and Doubt' is way too subtle in its revised version, and I suspect that some readers may now miss the whole point of the ending: I probably would, had I not read the story the way it was originally published.

Giving the hardback a deckle edge was a bad idea.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyday brilliance March 12 2004
By A Customer
I never much liked Updike's short stories until I started writing short stories myself. Many of the complaints people have with Updike are legitimate. He is usually light on plot. There is virtually no physical action--no fistfights, no murders, no sobbing confessions. But that, to me, is part of Updike's genius.
He always takes the difficult road. He doesn't simply have a husband cheat on his wife; instead, he has the husband worry that he will cheat on his wife, and then he considers the implications. I disagree with critics who accuse Updike of being unemotional. His stories are tangles of pure emotion.
My favorite story in the collection is "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car." It's set up as a series of essays that eventually carry the reader into a story about the author's dying father. It feels like a compilation of random events until you get ot the last line, and then you realize that everything is connected, everything has a purpose. It may be the most beautiful ending I've ever read. (The second most beautiful ending is in "The Happiest I've Been.")
Updike is not for everyone. If you like simple, straightforward stories, read Tobias Wolff (he is amazing in a totally different way). But if you're interested in a world vivid with details--a world with no easy questions, let alone answers--try Updike.
One caveat: read slowly--the magic is more in the words than the paragraphs.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Updike's Big Themes Dec 22 2003
By A Customer
I don't normally write Amazon reviews, but I agree with a previous reviewer that the hoopla for this book is not what it should be. Yes, yes, there are stories in here that don't work; but Updike is extraordinary in his Big Themes, and those come through wonderfully in this volume. I wanted to highlight three of them in this review.
(1) The recurring Richard and Joan Maple stories: Updike has a gift for peaking in on a set of characters every 5 years or so without skipping a beat. This, of course, is what the Rabbit Angstrom books do in novel form. In The Early Stories, Updike does this with the Maples in short story form. In each case, he captures their dialog and sarcastic exchanges as if he is writing their stories at the same time; when in fact they are stretched over twenty years.
(2) Prescient name-dropping: In the Rabbit Angstrom books, Updike fortuitously has the auto dealership affiliated with Toyota in the 1960s, which comes to great use in the 1970s. Here in The Early Stories, there is frequent reference to names which will recur in the future in American history; most interesting, Senator Al Gore (Sr).
(3) Love triangle dynamics: To Updike, the party that loses in a married man/married woman/woman mistress triangle is the woman mistress; he plays out this theme in various scenarios. I would suggest Updike's thesis is different than the norm, but one he writes about repeatedly.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Only Human Dec 14 2003
I think that in many important ways, John Updike is America's best living writer, with a long history of unmatched insights and integrity, complex and believable characters, and a range that stretches (with great success) from criticism to essays and from poetry to prose.
The Early Stories is a testament to and a forum examining the fiction side of Mr. Updike's talents, including every short story (every one!) he ever published up until 1975, when he was 43 years old. This book is more than 800 pages long, and so I assume that the post-1975 stories were held out both in order to make sure the book could be lifted without strain or (more likely) as the stuff for a second mammoth volume of this great writer's work.
Most of us already know at least a few of the 102 stories in this thick book (I read one, "A & P," when I was in high school, long before I became a fan of Mr. Updike's work, and I didn't even realize he had been the author of it until I saw it again here), and many of the ones we don't know will reveal themselves as gems. But also -- fortunately or unfortunately -- many of the stories here simply don't work: the plots are either dated, or the characters or their motivations are too thin.
Curiously, I am unsure about whether this is positive or negative. I dismiss the possibility that the uneven quality here is natural when examining the work of a young writer not yet fully in control of his powers. After all, Mr. Updike had already created his two most memorable characters -- Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech (who appears in this book) -- before most of these stories came to life.
Instead, I see this as welcome proof that Mr. Updike is human, that he doesn't produce something awe inspiring every time his pen touches paper.
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