‘In Football Season’ by John Updike


In Football Season by John Updike, 1962

The magic trick:

Using a ton of similes and metaphors to extract maximum nostalgia

Updike is excited about smells in this poem to the past written when he was barely 30. He conjures a mood of beautiful nostalgia like few writers can as he looks back 15 years to a time when the walk home from the Friday night football game meant everything. His focus on the olfactory is well done and it makes sense. Nothing quite captures memory like fragrance. It’s wispy and invisible but powerfully tangible somehow. Perfect for reflections on those painfully vivid but impossible-to-pin-down childhood memories.

However, having said all that, I want to highlight a less fragrant magic trick. Updike writes this story with a ton of lyricism. He’s throwing similes and metaphors at you like a champ. And, for me, most of them connect. It’s pretty amazing.

My favorite of the bunch is a brief section in which he contrasts the blaze of lights inside the football stadium with the dark void of the town outside and vice versa. It’s such a powerful image. I’ve seen it many times – as I’m sure most readers have – that way a the lights of a Friday night football game in a small town can be seen from miles away. It’s a cool thing in reality. It’s even better in fiction as a symbol ripe with meaning. And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The New Yorker published this story in November 1962. A year later, the innocence Updike mourned for himself would be gone for an entire country.

The selection:

And of course I remember the way we, the students, with all of our jealousies and antipathies and deformities, would be—beauty and boob, sexpot and grind—crushed together like flowers pressed to yield to the black sky a concentrated homage, an incense, of cosmetics, cigarette smoke, warmed wool, hot dogs, and the tang, both animal and metallic, of clean hair. In a hoarse olfactory shout, these odors ascended. A dense haze gathered along the ceiling of brightness at the upper limit of the arc lights, whose glare blotted out the stars and made the sky seem romanti­cally void and intimately near, like the death that now and then stooped and plucked one of us out of a crumpled automobile. If we went to the back row and stood on the bench there, we could look over the stone lip of the stadium down into the houses of the city, and feel the cold Novem­ber air like the black presence of the ocean beyond the rail of a ship; and when we left after the game and from the hushed residential streets of this part of the city saw behind us a great vessel steaming with light, the arches of the colonnades blazing like portholes, the stadium seemed a great ship sinking and we the survivors of a celebrated disaster.


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