‘Friends From Philadelphia’ by John Updike

Friends From Philadelphia by John Updike, 1954

The magic trick:

Illustrating a nasty bit of toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity – where does it start?

It starts here – in Updike’s post-war middle-class suburbs of Pennsylvania.

OK, no, it doesn’t start there. But this is where it sure hits its stride.

This story finds 15-year-old John engaging in a sometimes subtle, sometimes not subtle at all pissing contest with the father of a girl he likes from school. Whose dad is better educated? Whose dad makes more money? Whose dad drives a better car?

It’s amazing that Updike could write this well at age 22. The different roles that our 15-year-old play over the course of four pages is stunning. He’s humble and polite. He’s nervous and hesitant. He’s cocky and commanding. It’s a remarkable portrait, and a (perhaps unintentional) damning picture of toxic masculinity.

And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

“Ever driven this kind of car, John?” Mr. Lutz asked as they reached the curb.

“No. The only thing I can drive is my parents’ Plymouth, and that not very well.”

“What year car is it?”

“I don’t know exactly.” John knew perfectly well it was a 1947 model. “We got it long after the war. It has gear shift. This is automatic, isn’t it?”

“Automatic shift, fluid transmission, directional lights – the works,” Mr. Lutz said. “Now, isn’t it funny, John? Here is your father, an educated man, with an old Plymouth, yet at the same time I, who never read more than twenty, thirty books in my life . . . It doesn’t seem as if there’s justice.” He slapped the fender, bent over to get into the car, straightened up abruptly, and said, “Do you want to drive it?”

John opened his mouth to answer, and no sound came out.

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