Fiction at the Sentence Level
Elements of Craft in John Updike's “The Happiest I've Been”
by Sean Madden
I first read John Updike while standing at a crowded, downtown Los Angeles bus stop in November 2011. The story was “Natural Color,” a selection from Richard Ford’s Granta Book of the American Short Story: Volume Two.
At that time, I was busy reorienting my life around one particular ambition. I’d graduated from UC Berkeley in the spring of 2010 determined to become a professional fiction writer. Now I was ready to dedicate myself to the task.
Between graduation and the fall of 2011, I’d given up. I’d given up after getting ahead of myself and failing to achieve what I’d set out to do. I’d let the publication of the first short story I’d ever written, in the University of California’s student-run literary arts magazine, convince me that any top-tier Master of Fine Arts program would be thrilled to accept my application. When this fantasy didn’t play out—I applied to programs in the fall of 2010, and was rejected by them all—I felt like the butt of a cruel joke. I was so heartbroken, actually, and disappointed in myself, that I quit writing. I quit reading fiction, too. I no longer believed I had what it took to succeed as a writer. I came to regard the publication of my story in Matchbox Magazine as a fluke. My professors and peers at Berkeley who’d acknowledged my talent were guilty of mere flattery.
Then, in August, I suffered an existential crisis that unexpectedly righted my ship. I left my hometown of San Diego, where I’d been living the past year with my folks, and relocated to Los Angeles, to be closer to my girlfriend (now wife) and to start my first full-time job. I answered phones and made copies for public finance attorneys who, in my interviews with them, had come across as friendly, but who, as time went on, tended to regard me either with mild disdain or, if I was lucky, indifference. I knew I deserved better, that I was capable of more than just menial secretarial work; but it had taken me three months to land a job, and the economy was in such rough shape that I felt stuck where I was. And if I was truly stuck, what could be done, I asked myself, to assuage the numbing motions of my nine-to-five drudgery?
I was under the false impression that beautiful words alone make beautiful sentences, and that beautiful sentences make for good writing.
I began reading fiction again, on the bus to and from downtown. It was some chapters in to Colum McCann’s excellent novel, Let the Great World Spin, that I realized I’d had no business applying to MFA programs when I did. The problem was, I really hadn’t done enough on my own to cultivate my talent. I hadn’t yet pushed myself. I’d acted in arrogance. I’d made one of the worst mistakes you can make as a writer at any stage: I’d thought I was as good as anyone could be, and I’d refused to keep learning and growing. In the summer of 2011, McCann’s novel made me realize how wrong I’d been. I understood how far I still had to go. I had very little knowledge of craft, for one thing; obsessed with esthetics, I was under the false impression that beautiful words alone make beautiful sentences, and that beautiful sentences make for good writing. What I lacked above all, though, was discipline. I possessed the necessary work ethic, but I hadn’t yet put it to use, at least not effectively. I knew that if I really wanted to succeed as a writer, I would need to buckle down and start reading. A lot. And not just reading, but also picking apart stories and novels so I could learn the mechanics of my art. So I could move past simple esthetics, and start writing sentences that were beautiful because they meant something and enriched the story I was telling. I knew I would need to take an active role in my reading if I was going to improve as a writer.
Which brings me back to that fall afternoon at the bus stop on 3rd and Flower, where I stood reading Updike’s story. I was intrigued by the setting of a cozy New England hamlet and the characters embroiled in an adulterous affair. But I was more so struck by that elusive thing most writers struggle to attain: a mastery of language. The richness and warmth of the prose, the generosity there, the way every sentence mattered, reminded me of Marcel Proust, my first literary love, whose In Search of Lost Time had inspired me at twenty to become a writer.
I felt compelled to read more of Updike’s work.
In December of that year, I purchased The Early Stories: 1953-1975. I distinctly remember the morning I read the first piece collected there, “You Will Never Know, My Dear, How Much I Love You.” It completely knocked me out. There again was that richness, that warmth. That bounteous celebration of life. Who exactly was John Updike, I wondered, and just how deep was his well?
In time I discovered, upon further reading and investigation into his oeuvre, that Updike was one of the most prolific writers of his generation, and also one of the most consistent in terms of the quality of his output. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, his fiction alone (he was also a respected poet and literary critic) consists of more than twenty novels and about two-hundred short stories.
Now some years, a number of publications, and a Master of Fine Arts degree later, I’m here to discuss some key moments in, and the many sentence-level merits of, one of my favorite Updike stories, “The Happiest I’ve Been.”
“The Happiest I’ve Been” was published by The New Yorker in 1959, when Updike was twenty-six years old. His first New Yorker story, “Ace in the Hole,” appeared in 1955, when Updike was only twenty-three. “The Happiest I’ve Been” is one of the Olinger stories (pronounced “oh-linger”)—Olinger being the fictionalized Shillington, Pennsylvania, Updike’s hometown. The story, which takes place over the course of a single night, from dusk until dawn, is a semi-autobiographical account of a New Year’s Eve party Updike attended in Shillington while still an undergraduate at Harvard. John Nordholm is our first-person narrator; he recounts the tale in the past tense. There are two other main characters, Neil Hovey and Margaret Lento, and a host of minor, though often vibrant, characters.
The story begins with Neil pulling up to John’s farmhouse in his father’s car. Neil and John are old high school friends back in town for the holidays. That night, they’re set to drive from Olinger to Chicago, where Neil now lives, and from where John’s new girlfriend hails. John has plans to spend a few nights at his girlfriend’s family home before the two of them return to college by train. Neil, we’re told, is soon to ship off to fight in the Korean War.
As John hugs his mother goodbye, he looks “over her shoulder” at what he’s leaving behind: “I…tried to take, with the camera of my head, a snapshot I could keep of the house, the woods behind it and the sunset behind them, the bench beneath the walnut tree where my grandfather cut apples into skinless bits and fed them to himself, and the ruts in the soft lawn the bakery truck had made that morning” (Updike 172). There is much to admire here; not just the integrity of the sentence’s structure, but the many things the sentence accomplishes. It’s important to note Updike’s decision to capture the scene in one long sentence rather than in a few short ones. By writing one long sentence, Updike gives us a panorama; he gives us, through the power of the written word, the visual experience of taking in a photograph, seeing everything at once rather than in fragments. We also see the scene not just as it is in this particular moment but as it was in past moments. We don’t just see the bench beneath the walnut tree; we see the grandfather sitting there cutting apples at various points throughout John’s young life. We don’t just see the lawn; we’re taken back in time to earlier that day, when the bakery truck was making its rounds. Updike provides just enough context to the highly visual concrete images of the scene so that we’re treated to a nostalgia-tinged picture of the narrator’s world without any hint of the maudlin.
Updike doesn’t tell us about Mr. Schuman so much as he makes us feel his presence in the scene.
Once John and Neil are in the car, Neil decides to take a detour. He wants to attend Larry Schuman’s party in Olinger before departing for Chicago. When the two boys come inside, they’re greeted by Larry’s father. Mr. Schuman is one of the story’s minor characters, and yet Updike paints a detailed portrait of him: “Then Mr. Schuman stamped in comfortingly, crushing us all into one underneath his welcome…. He was dressed to go out on the town, in a camel topcoat and silvery silk muffler…. You could see in Mr. Schuman where Larry got the red hair and white eyelashes and self-confidence, but what in the son was smirking and pushy was in the father shrewd and masterful” (174). The strong verbs do much to characterize Mr. Schuman: his stamping in as opposed to walking in, his crushing them all as opposed to, say, crowding. These verbs establish Mr. Schuman’s physicality: his height, his weight, the way he moves about. We imagine a tall, well-built man whose presence fills the room. And we get all this in his actions; Updike doesn’t tell us about Mr. Schuman so much as he makes us feel his presence in the scene. We have a sense of his grip on the world even before we’re told he’s “shrewd” and “masterful.” In a similar vein, the stark images of “red hair” and “white eyelashes” help us to see the two Schuman men vividly. These images are quick to register in our imaginations; we don’t have to work very hard to process what these characters look like. This is good. Best of all is the way Updike compares father and son. In a single, concise sentence, Updike cuts right to the heart of who the two Schuman men are; we get the sense that, with age, wisdom, and perhaps a little luck, Larry might someday become his father. Updike takes just enough time to establish these characters as living and breathing, and in so doing tacitly argues that even minor characters need to be seen; they need to be made real for the reader.
He shows us how to seamlessly transition from present action to backstory and back again and reveal character in the process.
After Mr. and Mrs. Schuman leave, John breaks off from Neil. Here Updike transports the reader beautifully through time and space: “The party was the party I had been going to all my life, beginning with Ann Mahlon’s first Halloween party, which I attended as a hot, lumbering, breathless, and blind Donald Duck. …Ann, who because her mother loved her so much as a child had remained somewhat childish, and I and another boy and girl who were not involved in any romantic crisis went down into the Schumans’ basement to play circular Ping-Pong” (175). The party reminds John of his past, and he observes that Ann, ever-childish Ann, has been a constant presence at these parties through the years. The overall success of this passage hinges primarily on the fifteen words in between the commas in the second sentence, when Updike segues out of the past and returns us to the present. Ann serves as a kind of conduit through which Updike achieves this end; the consistency of her personality from childhood to adulthood moves us from one period of time to another. In his use of Ann, Updike makes a difficult aspect of storytelling seem easy. He shows us how to seamlessly transition from present action to backstory and back again and reveal character in the process. (Speaking of character, it’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate John as Donald Duck; those four adjectives all pull an equal amount of weight in contributing to one of Updike’s funniest descriptions).
In the wee hours of the morning, the party ends, and Neil and John wind up taking Larry Schuman’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Lento and her friend (who remains nameless and faceless throughout the story) to Margaret’s house in Riverside, a section of the neighboring city of Alton. As with the Nordholm family home, Updike establishes a place for us: “Among cities Alton had a bad reputation…. But to me it always presented an innocent face: row after row of houses built of a local dusty-red brick the shade of flowerpots, each house fortified with a tiny, awninged, balustraded porch, and nothing but the wealth of movie houses and beer signs along its main street to suggest that its citizens loved pleasure more than the run of mankind” (180-181). This description of Alton supports the preceding personification of the city as having an “innocent face.” Updike advances the notion of innocence when he observes that the brick houses are not just “dusty-red” but “dusty-red…the shade of flowerpots.” He modifies the already fairly specific “dusty-red” because the color on its own does nothing to connote innocence. It’s just a color in this context; he uses “flowerpots” to deepen the image, to connect it back to the personification. I process the image as follows: when I think of flowerpots, I think of gardens, and when I think of gardens, I think of beauty, tranquility. I think of Eden, the quintessential place of innocence. The word “tiny” operates in much the same way; it generally connotes harmlessness, fragility. The residents of Alton are moviegoers, beer-drinkers; if they love pleasure more than most, Updike seems to argue, at least their fun is, for the most part, good and clean.
Once inside the house, Margaret makes everyone coffee, then sits down with John at the kitchen nook. Neil goes with Margaret’s friend into the other room, and the two effectively disappear; we see very little of them from here. When John and Margaret settle into talking, and arrive at the subject of Larry, Updike describes their conversation as having the quality of “one of those Panama baskets shaped underwater around a worthless stone” (183). To clarify, the Panama basket is the conversation, and the stone is Larry; something ordinary engenders something extraordinary, in this case, a personal connection between John and Margaret. I scratch my head as to how Updike came up with this comparison. Maybe he read an article about Panama baskets while working on the story, and the idea of the stone so appealed to him that he wanted to somehow incorporate it. The line is so specific, and seems so strange (though not in a bad way) within the context of the story, that I can’t imagine Updike coming up with it under different circumstances. But my speculation is beside the point. What matters is the brilliance of the description, insofar as it takes the reader by surprise and uses concrete imagery to represent John and Margaret’s conversation in a unique and effective way.
“The Happiest I’ve Been” doesn’t end here, but I’m afraid if I were to summarize the plot any further, I would be doing a disservice. If I were to spoil the ending, or reveal more about the plot as a whole (I’ve purposefully left out some other key moments along the way), there would be less in the story for readers to discover. And that would be unfortunate.
So go forth and read “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and all the other Olinger stories while you’re at it. You won’t be disappointed.
But before you do, let me recapitulate and expand upon what I’ve discussed:
- If there’s anything you should take from this essay, it’s that sentences matter. Some writers will try to convince you that the story you’re telling is more important than how it is told, but that’s simply untrue. Good sentence writing, I’ve already conceded, isn’t necessarily the same as good storytelling, but good storytelling absolutely involves good sentence writing. After all, how can you expect to enjoy a story if the writing isn’t up to snuff? If the sentences are all criminally tortuous and obtuse? As the reader, you’ll never get past the first page. Be that as it may, it’s important when sitting down to compose a story not to get too wrapped up in writing perfect sentences, because your energy at this point is better spent getting thoughts on paper. Perfect sentences are almost always born in the editing process, when the plot, characters, and setting are all fully formed (or at least very close to it).
- On a related note, word choice matters. Think of the strong verbs Updike uses to describe Mr. Schuman, the mention of flowerpots to support the overall portrait of Alton as a city of innocence. Updike is no minimalist when it comes to his fiction—he has a reputation for verbosity—but all of his words are nevertheless there on the page for a reason. For as densely descriptive as his writing can be, it rarely feels heavy; there exists an economy of language. That said, it’s important in our writing to seek clarity. Think of Mr. Schuman’s “red hair” and “white eyelashes,” John as a “hot” and “lumbering” Donald Duck. Even the image of the Panama basket and stone is quite clear, mainly because of the economy of language. When I was just starting out, it was hard sometimes for me to distinguish rich prose from purple prose, that is, writing so extravagant it detracts from the story (my love of Moncrieff’s translation of Proust, coupled with my newness to writing fiction, may have been to blame here). In your writing, it’s important to ask yourself: are my words facilitating the reader’s understanding of a character or setting, or are they only calling attention to themselves? Am I communicating to the reader, or am I only showing off? Most of the time, less is more.
- Moving a reader through time gracefully is no easy feat, but if you can create some kind of constant that connects one point in time to another, be it a character trait, as with Ann Mahlon, or perhaps the perpetuation of an action or event, such as a party like Larry’s where the guests through the years are always the same, then you’re halfway there.
- My last piece of advice is to consider the semi-autobiographical short story. Our lives, day in and day out, can be very dull (I look back at my hours logged as a legal assistant as some of the dullest on record), and when we sit down to write, we want to imagine characters who are more interesting than ourselves and who are engaged in situations more exciting than we’ve known personally. This is fine, of course. Getting outside of ourselves is what fiction is all about. But I think sometimes we’re blind to how interesting our daily lives really are, how much material our lives give us as writers to draw upon. It’s no secret that Updike’s fiction is a reflection of his life, and I take his ability to craft stories out of his personal experience as a kind of challenge. How can I turn my victories, my defeats, my philosophical musings, my curiosity about the world into compelling fiction? How much of my inner life can I reveal on the page, and in such a way that others find what I’ve written worth reading? I ask you the same question I asked Updike’s spirit almost nine years ago: just how deep is your well? ■