The second set of stories in John Updike's The Early Stories is a more miscellaneous grouping, united only very loosely through their characters' shared circumstance of being ""Out in the World," as this section's title has it. Whereas the first section, "Olinger Stories," (a discussion of which can be found here) is worth reading as a whole because of its portrayal of Olinger (a fictionalized version of Updike's home town), the second can probably be read selectively, focusing on the better stories and skipping over the less substantial. I will try to identify what seem to me to be the better stories, and perhaps suggest how these stories might be read within the context of Updike's then developing career as a writer.
The characters in this group of stories, most of them still recognizably some transformed version of Updike himself (or at least of Updike and his experiences taken as representative of certain kind of postwar American, an aspirant to the educated middle class), are "out in the world" as students, as recent college graduates, as husbands starting families, or in some way getting an idea (in at least one case, not getting it) of what the world "out there" is really like. Like the Olinger stories, these stories were all written between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, and if one were to judge by these first two sections of The Early Stories, it would seem that Updike set out to be a writer who would chronicle the coming-of-age and the subsequent experiences of that generation of Americans who were born before World War II but came to maturity and adulthood in the immediate postwar period. In Updike's case this also entails chronicling the journey from small-town America and its assumptions to those of the more "wordly" suburbs and cities.
Some of the stories are slight and, in my opinion, readers could safely pass on them: "The Kid's Whistling,""Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow," A Trillion Feet of Gas," Dear Alexandros, and "At a Bar in Charlotte Amalie" would fit into this category. "The Lucid Eye in Silver Town" and "His Finest Hour" are worth reading, but are ultimately fairly recognizable kinds of maturation stories (the latter confronting its married protagonists with the reality of domestic violence just next door) that, after promising beginnings, more or less disappoint by the end. One group of stories--"Dentistry and Doubt," "A Madman," "Still Life," and "Home"--portray their student protagonist's visit to and return from England, but only the last, which concerns this character's return and the beginnings of his readjustment to "home" and career, could really be classified as among Updike's more compelling stories.
This leaves "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth," "The Christian Roommates,""The Doctor's Wife," and "Ace in the Hole" as the cream of this crop. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" depicts an episode between a young male schoolteacher (still somewhat earnest and unsuspecting) and what he assumes to be a female student with a crush on him. (She is caught conspicuously passing a note that expresses her love for him.) It turns out, however, that this girl has been buttering up all of her teachers, and it is the protagonist who indeed winds up crushed. After discovering her strategem, "Mr. Prosser took his coat from the locker and shrugged it on. He placed his hat upon his head. He fitted his rubbers over his shoes, pinching his fingers painfully, and lifted his umbrella off the hook. He thought of opening it right there in the vacant hall, as a kind of joke on himself and decided not to. The girl had been almost crying; he was sure of that." (This latter is a repetition of the same thought he had had upon confronting the girl with the note) Many of Updike's stories end with these epiphanic moments of truth, but this is a story in which that moment is particularly affecting.
"The Christian Roommates" is finally less effective as a story, but is remarkable for the current of barely concealed homoeroticism that runs through it. Otherwise a more or less conventional story of "the college experience," it presents probably the most naive and sheltered character in this group of stories, Orson Ziegler, who "came straight to Harvard from the small South Dakota town where his father was the doctor," confronted with his assigned roommate, "Hub" Palamountain, an unconventional fellow of a sort Orson certainly has never before encountered. Orson comes to hate Hub, but the hate clearly enough hides a simultaneous attraction. It all comes to a climax, so to speak, when Hub steals a parking meter and brings it into their room. Orson is scandalized and the two of them finally have it out: "Orson came up behind him and got him around the neck with one arm. Hub's body stiffened. . . Orson experienced sensations of being lifted, of flying, and of lying on the floor. . .He scrambled to his feet and went for Hub again, rigid with anger and yet, in his heart, happily relaxed. . .Hub's body was tough and quick and satisfying to grip. . .Orson felt a blow as his coccyx hit the wood; yet even through the pain he perceived, gazing into the heart of this forced marriage, that Hub was being as gentle with him as he could be. . .He renewed the attack and again enjoyed the tense defensive skill that made Hub's body a kind of warp in space through which his own body, after a blissful instant of contention, was converted to the supine position. . . ." By today's wised-up standards, this scene has a barely suppressed hilarity about it, but Updike's language is clear enough to conclude he knew what he was doing.
"The Doctor's Wife" in a sense takes us farthest "out in the world," to an out-of-the-way Caribbean island where a young American family is vacationing. The doctor and his wife are permanently resident caucasians, and the story impressively enough depicts some of the racial tensions being felt during the early 60's. (As, in its way, does "The Christian Roommates.") The doctor's wife has come to have the attitude of the white colonialist toward the black inhabitants of the island ("Unnatural, childish ingratitude. You just don't know how unnatural these people are"), and at the end of the story she tells the American husband that the locals think his own wife's "good tan" means she is "part Negro." The husband is left brooding on his own reaction to this: "She [his wife] would have wanted him to say something like yes, her great-grandfather picked cotton in Alabama, in America these things are taken for granted, we have no problem. But he saw, like something living glimpsed in a liquid volume, that his imaginary scenarios depended upon, could only live within, a vast unconscious white pride; he and the doctor's wife were in this together."
The most noteworthy story among the "Out in the World" group may be "Ace in the Hole," and not just because it is clearly a precursor to Rabbit, Run. It is an interesting and accomplished story in its own right, perhaps the most successful of those stories (so far) in which Updike tries to move beyond his own experiences and create a protagonist who is not merely a fictional persona. Like Rabbit Angstrom, Ace is a former high school basketball hero no longer in the spotlight. But unlike Rabbit, Ace Anderson seems only obliquely aware that his glory has irretrievably faded, and although he clearly is just drifting through his life as depicted in the story, he can't quite let go of the happy-go-lucky attitude of his basketball days. The story ends with a confrontation between Ace and his wife (Eve) that doesn't bode well for the future, reinforcing the uneasiness Ace has been feeling of late: "He wasn't hungry; his stomach was tight. It used to be like that when he walked to the gymnasium alone in the dark before a game. . .But once he was inside, the locker room would be bright and hot, and the other guys would be there, laughing and towel-slapping, and the tight feeling would leave. Now there were whole days when it didn't leave."
What Ace Anderson lacks is Rabbit's self-awareness that his life has become tragic in an archetypally American way. Having made it to the top so early (and under such unavoidably consticted circumstances), Rabbit isn't likely to have another chance, and his horror at this prospect is what gives Rabbit, Run its sense of urgency and inescapable failure. Ace is less astute than Rabbit, and it's unlikely that as written his character could have developed the alertness to his situation that made it possible for Rabbit to be the center of a full-length novel. But the very qualities that distinguish Ace from Rabbit still illuminate for us the realities of American life Updike seems to be exploring in both "Ace in the Hole" and Rabbit, Run. In the one case a growing sense of quiet desperation that will probably remain muted, in the other a prolonged outcry against the conditions that create that desperation in the first place.