I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story quite like John Updike’s “A & P”. I’ve never even heard of “modernistic” writing before our COMM class was introduced to Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” this semester, and I’m happy to finally have an excuse to stick my nose in a kind of milestone of literary fiction that I otherwise wouldn’t even bat an eye at. Stuff like Hemingway and Updike wasn’t taught in my in high school curriculum, and in a way I’m glad it wasn’t. I don’t think as an inexperienced, self-centred teenager I would understand or even appreciate the kind of “genuine” insight that a story like “A & P” provides between the lines if something like it were force-fed to me in Grade 10 or 11.
By “genuine” I guess I mean this: “A & P”, besides a short story, in and of itself represents a single instance within the many folds of regular, every day life. Sammy the cashier narrates the story of how he and his co-workers are enamoured by a small group of bikini-clad girls (potentially fresh off the beach) who invade the dreary and conservative A & P establishment, which in turn results in Sammy’s subsequent “walk-out” when the girls are chastised for their attire by the grocery store’s general manager.
Sammy relays this story to an off-print audience in such a down-to-earth way that it’s like we the reader are physically sitting with him around a poker table with a couple of beers – or something of that nature. The reason the story has such an impact on the reader is because we’ve all been there – we’ve all been in Sammy’s place: jolted out of the foggy and mundane routine of an otherwise demeaning minimum-wage job, when something we don’t see every day interrupts the pace of the work environment. It’s a glimmer of some kind of hope or amusement that even though the queer instance is one of many seen in the retail world, that it’s something an unmotivated (and possibly begrudging) employee would unconsciously latch onto for dear life in some regard – a reminder of their sanity outside of their cruddy job, maybe.
Some may think the part near the end of the story, where Sammy quits his job all of a sudden, is an abrupt and disjointed way to move the plot forward – but keeping in the perspective of Updike’s language and tone of the story, it’s clear to me that a strong desire to quit his position at A & P was something on Sammy’s mind for a while now. Whether the cashier realizes it or not, his manager’s staunch store policy against the girls’ scant attire is the final pin prick of a countless many that sends Sammy’s disdain for his job from the back burner to the front element, despite better judgement.
In the narration it’s apparent to me that Sammy has since thoughtfully analyzed the stupid decision he made in his dramatic “walk-out”. Even in the retelling of the event, he realizes the gravity of the mistake almost as soon as he steps foot out into A & P’s parking lot. With a brief flash of desperation to justify what he had just done, Sammy glances around to see if the scantly-clad girls are still in the vicinity – which they aren’t – and then back inside the store window to see his boss working the register in his place in order to compensate for the abrupt rift in daily routine. Sammy knows he screwed up big time, but there’s nothing he can do to make it better.
While Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is ambiguous in its undertones of abortion and human frailty, I feel both it and Updike’s “A & P” bring literature to a kind of realistic and “humanistic” level not seen very often, which readers can relate to: both are brief glimpses into one of many instances of a person’s life, and as soon as the stories end, so too do these brief instances – where they remain in print as such, almost emulating sharp and independent memories that people keep stored in their heads over time.
I haven’t read enough modernistic literature to be too sure of the above “memory” theory, but even if I’m flat out wrong, I think at least Updike’s “A & P” is one of the most insightful, down-to-earth, and realistically-written short pieces I’ve yet had the pleasure to read.