Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Pouring Drinks and Getting Drunk: The Social and Personal Implications of Drinking in John Updike's 'Too Far to Go.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Pouring Drinks and Getting Drunk: The Social and Personal Implications of Drinking in John Updike's 'Too Far to Go.'

Article excerpt

Few people would dispute the far-reaching role drinking plays in society. As critical studies such as Thomas B. Gilmore's Equivocal Spirits: Alcoholism and Drinking in Twentieth-Century Literature demonstrate, literary representations of drinking, at whatever level of consumption, reveal much about characters and the cultural milieu they inhabit--especially when the drinking is deeply entrenched in characters' public and private conduct, as is often the case in American literature. In John Updike's short story sequence Too Far to Go, Joan and Richard Maples's drinking devolves from a conventional social pastime to an extension of their private discord, significantly altering (for the worse ultimately) how they regard and interact with one another. Simultaneously, their drinking habits expose the degree to which alcohol use, with all of its attendant behaviors, is linked to the specific gender roles and family dynamics of the middle-class suburban world that the Maples occupy.

Increasingly, as research and experience continue to inform us of its effects, alcohol has been categorized as a "drug," making it, in Jacques Derrida's phrase, "the object of dissuasive campaigns and of a whole quasimoral pedagogy" (4). Yet such was far from the case in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the three decades spanned by the Maples stories. Drinking for the Maples and their set has little of the social opprobrium that the activity currently carries. Nor, by either today's standards or yesterday's, would either Joan or Richard be considered alcoholic. Yet as their drinking takes on an ever-increasing urgency and the consequences of that urgency become more evident, Joan and Richard certainly begin to exhibit alcoholic tendencies. This is especially evident in regard to their escalating reliance on drinking at the critical moments in their lives that, though certainly filled with anxiety, require the greatest composure.

As with most people, drinking for the Maples starts out as a social prop. In "Snowing in Greenwich Village," the opening story in the 17-story sequence, the newly-married Maples begin learning their role as host and hostess by offering their guest a drink:

"Who would like some sherry?" Richard asked in a deep

voice, from a standing position.

"We have some hard stuff if you'd rather," Joan said to

Rebecca; from Richard's viewpoint the remark ... contained the

quite legible declaration that this time he would have to mix the

drinks. (15-16)

As suggested here, drinking is linked to the gender roles that Richard and Joan must each perform quite early in their marriage. The man, in charge of the bar, offers and serves the drinks. Yet as Joan prompts Richard to fulfill this role, she also hints at trespassing another, the one that says that women, if they drink at all, partake of modest drinks such as sherry rather than "hard stuff," which is typically reserved for men. Richard, meanwhile, proceeds to act out his role as host as he "posingly poured out three glasses, passed them around, and leaned against the mantel" (16).

The first suggestion that drinking is more than simply a social activity for Richard, that it contributes to how he defines himself, comes moments later when "Richard poured the sherry around again . . . [which] made him the center of attention . . ." (19). Even as he plays the role of deferential server, Richard's pouring drinks turns into more than just a casual gesture of hospitality. By linking the actions attendant on drinking to his desire for attention, Richard begins to use drinking, however subtly, for particular personal ends involving how he wishes to be regarded, so that the pouring of drinks no longer serves merely a pro forma social function.

In the story "The Taste of Metal," Richard fully indulges the self-serving, and increasingly self-defining, nature of his drinking. Having earlier had his teeth capped and bridged, he attends a party where "he drank a variety of liquids" and eventually begins to experience "the heightened clarity that fills the mind after a religious conversion" (91, 92). …

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