Welcome to a new feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.
In this poignant story about getting older, looking back and making sense of lost moments, David Kern returns with his second wife to Oligner, Pennsylvania for his fiftieth high school reunion. His first stop is the hospital where their class organizer, Mamie Kauffman, is dying of cancer. At the reunion, David meets an old girlfriend, Elizanne, and she triggers long-buried memories of a first kiss on a walk home from a date and the charged moments of adolescence.
David considers his small-town upbringing, of knowing his classmates from Kindergarten through high school, and then leaving to start a life somewhere else. As he recalls the heat of this early teenage encounter, he’s jarred by Elizanne’s coarse comment, “It got me started, I must tell you, on a lot of, whatever. Kissing, let’s say.”
For days after the reunion, David thinks of his walk with Elizanne, and wonders what he might ask her now. But he won’t call her and he knows the importance of this memory will fade. “The questions he was burning to ask would receive banal answers. It was an adolescent flirtation that had come to nothing.”
I enjoyed this story and how Updike contrasts the limitless possibilities of youth with the realities that alter his characters’ paths. Mamie, who had stayed in Olinger, and was always the one with the most class spirit, spins her coming death into something positive, telling David, “That I’ll be all right. That when it comes, I’ll still be there. Here. You know what I’m saying?” Elizanne, who has not returned for reunions until this one, will likely refile her walk with David, giving it little meaning other than a quick reminiscence. All three have no choice but to accept the reality of passing time and narrowing paths.
John Updike (1932-2009) was an award-winning American writer of novels, short stories and poetry. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was known for his stories of middle-class Protestant life in small-town Pennsylvania. In addition to many other awards, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 and 1991.
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