‘The Happiest I’ve Been’ by John Updike

The Happiest I’ve Been by John Updike, 1959

The magic trick:

Showing a character who is defining adulthood by the ability to become nostalgic

Happy New Year’s Eve! It’s an excellent day to get sentimental, and who better to get sentimental with than John Updike, a man who by Thursday each week likely started to recount Monday with bittersweet nostalgia.

We’re going to look at two Updike stories this new year’s holiday. They were written 30 years apart, but I believe they pair nicely as glances back at a Pennsylvania childhood from two different vantage points.

First: “The Happiest I’ve Been,” one of Updike’s earliest and one of his very best.

It tells the story of a young man’s night out in his hometown – at a friend’s house, celebrating New Year’s Eve a few nights early.

And if you ever wanted to understand how Updike could possibly notice and remember so many details about his life, his stand-in character, John, puts it plainly here, writing of a goodbye hug with his mother:

“I embraced my mother and over her shoulder with the camera of my head tried to take a snapshot I could keep of the house, the woods behind it and the sunset behind them, the bench beneath the walnut tree where my grandfather cut apples into skinless bits and fed them to himself, and the ruts the bakery truck had made in the soft lawn that morning.”

I mean, you can just feel it – the obsessive need to catalogue. I figure that was probably 80 percent of Updike’s desire to write: the setting down into written word the vast set of photographic memories he took with the camera of his head.

The narrator is 20 in this story. Updike himself was 25 or 26 when he wrote it.

Truly astounding.

Anyway, this story is unique (in my reading experience at least) in its exploration of a very specific kind of coming of age. John, the protagonist, is not becoming a man in any tangible way during this story. He’s not meeting anyone who will alter his life’s plans. One suspects the most important life events for John either happened just before (meeting his girlfriend for the first time at college) or just after (probably proposing to her and getting married) the story we’re reading.

No, the lesson John is learning here is one of nostalgia. His childhood has become past tense. It’s only during this new year’s party that he fully understands that the friends and routines and social structures of his youth have carried on or collapsed in ways that are wholly unrelated to him. He’s been away at college. His hometown is the same physical space he used to live in, but it’s not longer the same place.

It seems like such an obvious realization. So obvious perhaps that most people don’t even think about it.

Which is why most people need to step back for a half hour and read this story.

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

The selection:

She asked me, “What was Larry like when he was little?”

“Oh, bright. Kind of mean.”

“Was he mean?”

“I’d say so. Yes. In some grade or other he and I began to play chess together. I always won until secretly he took lessons from a man his parents knew and read strategy books.”

Margaret laughed, genuinely pleased. “Then did he win?”

“Once. After that I really tried, and after that he decided chess was kid stuff. Besides, he’d used me up. He’d have these runs on people where you’d be down at his house every afternoon, then in a couple months he’d get a new pet and that’d be that.”

“He’s funny,” she said. “He has a kind of cold mind. He decides on what he wants, then he does what he has to do, you know, and nothing anybody says can change him.”

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