Thursday, April 05, 2018

"The Christian Roommates" (1964)

Read story by John Updike online.

John Updike's story is a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. It's charming and a pleasure to read—published originally in the New Yorker—but just to be clear, it's a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. The two main characters are Orson Ziegler, a premed student from South Dakota, and Harry Palamountain, who goes by Hub. They are called the Christian roommates the way other pairs are called the Jewish roommates, the Negro roommates, the writer roommates, and so on. Not all the labels fit these late adolescents perfectly. Ziegler is a conventional rock-ribbed Republican protestant. Hub is interested in religion and philosophy, but he's hardly hemmed in by any one sect or creed, or even Christianity. He practices something he calls "Yoga," and also meditates, prays, and elaborately attempts to stay open to all things. The story was published before hippies, but Hub is in line with certain strains of Thoreau by way of the beats. There are nearly a dozen characters here and the best part of the story is its strong sense for that age of stepping out on your own. Some of these guys—they are all guys—don't even last the first year. Others stay together as roommates all the way. At the end of the story we get little bios of how things turned out, like the end of American Graffiti: "Fitch returned, made up the lost credits, and eventually graduated magna cum in History and Lit. He now teaches in a Quaker prep school. Silverstein is a biochemist, Koshland is a lawyer," etc. I'm a little surprised I haven't read more Updike—his natural chatty style is the kind of thing that can appeal to me (Salinger, Roth, etc.). But then I look at the privilege on display here and I remember. The only way this works is to accept its class-bound terms. The third-person narrator is basically above it, comfortable in the class that intimidates all these boys one way or another. And yet this narrator has little to say about class formally. That would be gauche, I guess. Even within its narrow constraints—the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s—there is easily recognized human behavior in this story, which works to redeem the patronizing superiority at least a little.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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