Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: The Persistence of Desire

I’ve said before that John Updike is the best author I know who writes about characters I don’t like. I base this on only a handful of short stories and one novel. So when I selected his short story “The Persistence of Desire”, I thought I knew what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised. I still don’t necessarily like the protagonist but he managed to put a smile on my face.

With dilated pupils, Clyde sneaks into Janet’s room attempting to rekindle the flame. I always have a thing for good physical comedy and if an author can do physical comedy with the written word then even better – and, here, Updike is even better!

While not really interested in Clyde, Janet is at least amused and asks a fairly obvious question:

“Clyde, I thought you were successful. I thought you had beautiful children. Aren’t you happy?”


To which Clyde classically replies:

“I am, I am; but” – the rest was so purely inspired its utterance only grazed his lips – “happiness isn’t everything.”

I think “happiness isn’t everything” could be the mantra for all of Updike’s stories or at least the ones I’ve read.

This story is included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. I read it when I selected the Three of Spades for my Deal Me In 2020 short story project. Check out my Deal Me In 2020 list here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.



Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: Gesturing (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 23)

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Dinner would lead to a post-dinner drink, while the children (two were off at school, two were still homebound) plodded through their homework or stared at television, and drinking would lead to talking, confidences, harsh words, maudlin tears, and an occasional uxorious collapse upward, into bed. She was right, it was not healthy, nor progressive. The twenty years were by when it would have been convenient to love each other.

John Updike tells great stories about people I don’t like.

In “Gesturing”, married couple Richard and Joan decide to separate because it’s what they feel they are suppose to do when each of them are having an affair about which the other one knows. Discontinuing the affairs never seems to be an option.

All the psycho-babble spewed out by Richard and Joan to each other over dinners and glasses of wine would become irritating and annoying if Updike didn’t make it so irresistible. Both characters would probably benefit by talking about the occasional gestures they each notice about the other as opposed to the shallow conversations in which they get lost.

And the conversations Richard has with his mistress, Ruth? Same thing just from a different angle.

short stories century

This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by none other than John Updike. I read it when I selected the Ace of Hearts for my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list is here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Posted in Short Stories

Anniversary #6!

Today is the sixth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, here are my top ten favorite short stories of 2017!

10.)  Mary, The Cleaning Lady – Scott McClanahan

I enjoyed reading the anthology Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia but this story is the only one that made it into my top ten.

There were good things like ice cream cones, and trying to keep houses clean, and your mother bringing you to Mary’s house wrapped in a blanket, so you could watch cartoons and dream your cartoon dreams.


9.)  Snowing in Greenwich Village – John Updike

I’ve enjoyed several of John Updike’s stories over the years, but the subtlety and nuance in this one made it a favorite.

Richard’s suspicion on the street that he was trespassing beyond the public gardens of courtesy turned to certain guilt.


8.) The Snow Image – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I’ve realized that I have never put a Hawthorne story in my top ten so I am including this story the same way some win awards for a body of work – of course, Hawthorne doesn’t really need my approval.

…for all through life she had kept her heart full of childlike simplicity and faith, which was as pure and clear as crystal, and, looking at all matters through this transparent medium, she sometimes saw truths so profound that other people laughed at them as nonsense and absurdity.


7.) Poor Visitor – Jamaica Kincaid

A little homesickness or maybe something else makes me want to read more stories by Kincaid.

In a daydream I used to have, all these places were points of happiness to me; all these places were lifeboats to my small drowning soul, for I would imagine myself entering and leaving them, and just that – entering and leaving over and over again – would see me through a bad feeling I did not have a name for.


6.) The Cafeteria – Isaac Bashevis Singer

Leisurely lunches by people who have experienced some of the worst evils of the 20th century make this a very satisfying story.

I decided not to rest until I knew for certain what had happened to Esther and also to that half writer, half politician I remembered from East Broadway. But I grew busier from day to day. The cafeteria closed. The neighborhood changed. Years have passed and I have never seen Esther again. Yes, corpses do walk on Broadway. But why did Esther choose that particular corpse? She could have got a better bargain even in this world.


5.) Rembrandt’s Hat – Bernard Malamud

Not your usual short story relationship makes this story intriguing and one that I continue to think about.

That evening, leaving the building, they tipped hats to each other over small smiles.


4.) Yours – Joe Ashby Porter

I loved the wacky bitterness of the jilted narrator in this story and it provided one of my favorite quotations.

I’m off newspapers for the moment and to fill the breakfast time this morning I plotted a graph of my life on a napkin.


3.)  Chemistry – Ron Rash

Ron Rash’s short story anthology Something Rich and Strange was one of my favorite reading experiences in 2017 and this was the favorite story. It’s also the only story on my top ten list that was not from my Deal Me In project.

“Your mother believes the holy rollers got me too young, that they raised me to see the world only the way they see it. But she’s wrong about that. There was a time I could understand everything from a single atom to the whole universe with a blackboard and piece of chalk, and it was as beautiful as any hymn the way it all came together.”


2.) Absolution – F. Scott Fitzgerald

A great story with a great first line.

There once was a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears.


1.)  The Balloon – Donald Barthelme

This is a departure in the type of story I usually choose as a favorite but it was just too unusual, but perfect, in structure, plot and style that I had to put it at the top.

…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there – muted grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with walnut and soft yellows.





Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: Snowing in Greenwich Village (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 44)

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Wonderful Town

Richard’s suspicion on the street that he was trespassing beyond the public gardens of courtesy turned to certain guilt.

John Updike’s “Snowing in Greenwich Village” is a masterpiece in nuance, subtlety and unspoken tension. I don’t know why I want to keep making fun of it. Perhaps I keep thinking about the moment when Richard offers his guest, Rebecca, some cashews. This small gesture occupies at least a couple of paragraphs. Perhaps it’s because when Richard’s wife, Joan, insists on Richard walking Rebecca home because it’s snowing (hence the title), I want to shake my head and say “Joan, Joan, Joan…poor, naive Joan”.

At the same time, I have to ask myself the question that maybe Joan isn’t as naive as I initially think. Published in 1956, maybe Updike portrays a more “progressive” couple – or a couple with more problems than we initially understand. Given that the reader can notice the sexual tension between Richard and Rebecca without having it mentioned, maybe Joan can too. Maybe Joan doesn’t care if something happens with Richard and Rebecca. Joan’s thoughts in the story are more difficult to get to so I think she makes for the more intriguing character. As Richard walks Rebecca up the stairs to her apartment, the reader doesn’t have to wonder what his thoughts are. But that doesn’t mean that what the reader thinks is going to happen necessarily does.

In spite of the humor that I find in the story that I’m not sure is suppose to be there, I think this story could very easily end up on my top ten list at the end of the year. I read it when I selected the Five of Diamonds for Week 44 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth


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One aspect of the television show E.R. that I always thought interesting was the way the writers, in many story lines,  would only let the viewers see what a real Emergency Room staff would see. The viewers would not know much about a patient’s background except what they would tell the doctors and nurses.  In the same manner, viewers usually never knew what happened to patients when they left the hospital.

John Updike

I was reminded of this in reading John Updike’s short story “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” this week.  While it’s not set in a hospital, it’s set in a high school classroom, the reader only gets to know the students through the point of view of the teacher, Mark Prosser, and his thoughts are focused on one class.

Given the title, it didn’t come as a surprise that Prosser is an English teacher and this specific class concentrates on Shakespeare’s MacBeth and the title character’s famous soliloquy.  I recall having to memorize it for my 11th grade English class.  Prosser approaches the class with a little knowledge and much nervousness.  His lack of confidence coincides nicely with the students’ questions.  Though it might sound like a cliche, I couldn’t help but smile when a student asks why MacBeth stopped in the middle of a war to make this big long speech to himself.  This only enhances Prosser’s feelings of inadequacy:

Mark winced, pierced by the awful clarity with which his students saw him.  Through their eyes, how queer he looked, with his chalky hands, and his horn-rimmed glasses, and his hair never slicked down, all wrapped up in “literature,” where, when things get rough, the king mumbles a poem nobody understands.

The reader never knows what actually happens to any of the students after the bell rings for the end of class.  Updike uses Prosser’s honesty in a manner that makes the teacher understandable and likeable as opposed to being a weakling.  My guess would be that Prosser is not the students’ favorite teacher but he’s probably not the most hated, either. This story corresponded to the Nine of Hearts which I selected for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.