I had anticipated that section six of John Updike's The Early Stories might be one of the highlights of the book. Called "Tarbox Tales," it gathers together fourteen stories set in the fictional town of Tarbox, Massachusetts (although in several of the stories the town's name is never mentioned.) However, I have to say that as a whole the stories did not live up to expectations. Readers looking for a supplementary depiction of the suburban town that also serves as the setting for Updike's novel Couples (1968) are likely to be disappointed as well.
The first four stories in this section--"The Indian," "The Hillies," "The Tarbox Police," "The Corner"--do provide some extra coloring beyond what one would find in Couples, but these "tales" are really sketches more than they are fully dramatized short stories, and as much as anything they seem to be the vehicles for Updike's musings on the changes being wrought on a town like Tarbox during the "turbulent" late 1960s and early 1970s. Several of the other stories--"Lifeguard," "The Deacon," "The Carol Sing," "Believers"--are better examples of Updike's treatment of religion and religious belief than they are of "Tarbox Tales," stories about middle-class suburban life. I am probably not the best judge of Updike's "religious" fiction, since in the main I find it obvious and heavy-handed right from the start, even though I know that scholarly articles and books have been written about the centrality to his work of Updike's own Karl Barth-derived religious beliefs. I actually much prefer the stories about suburban malaise and serial adultery. "Lifeguard" is probably the best of this group, as it also introduces the preoccupation with sins of the flesh to be found in many of Updike's novels.
There are two Maple stories in this section, "The Taste of Metal" and "Your Lover Just Called," although it isn't clear to me why these are included as Tarbox Tales while the others are not. They are in fact two of the better stories about this ultimately doomed marriage, as they focus on the relational dynamics and sexual restlessness of the Maple marriage rather than linking the couple's problems in a too facile way to the social transformations going on around them as perhaps some of the other Maple stories do.
For most readers, then--and for me--the most significant story in "Tarbox Tales" is probably "A & P." Easily Updike's most anthologized story, its first-person narrative tells the deceptively simple story of the protagonist's coming of age as he, a checkout boy in the grocery store named in the title, watches the reaction of the Tarbox residents ("the sheep") to the appearance of a sexually uninhibited, scantily clad young lady in the store one day. The story's conclusion, relating the immediate aftermath of the narrator's resignation after he has taken the girl's side (for reasons beyond the obvious one) against his employer, is justly famous: "I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course. There wasn't anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn't get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the second slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in." And we understand that the narrator, Sammy, is correct: the world will be hard on him. The story is not just an account of adolescent rebellion but indeed a meditation on the unavoidable turning-points in life. The present-tense narration still seems powerful in its immediacy, even though the use of the present tense among current neorealist writers has become something of a commonplace. (Updike should probably be held accountable for this phenomenon only to the extent that he really was a pioneer of the technique, here and in Rabbit, Run.)
(The last selection in "Tarbox Tales," the brief poem-story "Eclipse," although it is not narrated in the present tense, also dramatizes a turning-point in its protagonist's life. The narrator comes to his own kind of realization during an eclipse, which Updike handles in a subtle and satisfying way. I would identify this story, along with "A &P," as the two really indispensable stories in this section of the book.)
Those wishing to experience Updike's portrayal of Tarbox, the otherwise rather nondescript New England town going through its own kind of turmoil during the 1960s, will thus probably have to turn to Couples. Although I wouldn't necessarily rank it at the very top among Updike's novels, I have now read this novel twice, and each time I thought it provocative and convincing, despite the critics who scorned it at the time of its publication. It's interesting partly as a period piece, but it also shows (along with a few of the stories in "Tarbox Tales") John Updike discovering what, in my opinion, is still his most interesting and most enduring subject.