‘The Other Side Of The Street’ by John Updike

The Other Side Of The Street by John Updike, 1991

The magic trick:

Being brave enough to center a story around an obvious lesson

Yesterday we rang out 2022 with John Updike’s “The Happiest I’ve Been.” Today we welcome 2023 with his “The Other Side Of The Street.”

The narrator in “Happiest” discovers at the age of 20 that the social structure of his youth has changed since he left town for college.

Thirty years later, a different (yet oddly familiar) narrator returns to a different (yet oddly familiar) Pennsylvania town following his mother’s death. And wouldn’t you know he’s having similar realizations about what’s become of his hometown while he’s been gone.

In this case, the narrator locks in on a peer of his who grew up across the street from him. He is stunned to learn that she never left. She still, all these years later, lives in the same house. In a way, this is nearly the opposite realization that John has in “The Happiest I’ve Been.” There, John has to recalibrate his brain to understand that things have changed. Here, the narrator has to digest the possibility that things didn’t change for everyone as they did for him (three marriages, a move to the West Coast, etc.).

I think both stories are excellent examples of being brave enough to allow your protagonist to learn an almost stupidly-obvious lesson. Sometimes I think it’s tempting to think the theme or epiphany in a short story needs to be Earth-shattering; something that teaches the reader. First and foremost, it needs to be an epiphany for the character, flawed or obtuse that character may be.

And you know what? Odds are, this reader is similarly flawed and obtuse so what may seem like an obvious lesson will still play as Earth-shattering.

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

The selection:

Fawcett had been gazing so steadily at his old house that it ooh him a second to realize that she meant her own. “Sure,” he said. She saw him as an orphan, in need of a treat. Which, he supposed, he was. The swish of traffic was slackening on Chestnut Street, and there were no lights on at the front of his old house, just an unsteady upstairs phosphorescence indicating the presence of a television set, or an aquarium with a flickering bulb.

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2 thoughts on “‘The Other Side Of The Street’ by John Updike

  1. It may be that these two Updike entries for the last day of 2022 and the first of 2023 are my favorites of the whole year, in that (a) they keenly go to the essence and courage of great story writing and (b) equally make a plea for the responsibility (and modesty) of the reader. A lesson I carry into the new year. Bravo Updike and SSMT.

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