John Updike’s “Lifeguard”

John Updike’s “Lifeguard” is too deep a story to be so clever and too clever to be so deep. In it, an unnamed lifeguard and theology student beautifully conflates his two worlds, living in one nine months of the year and the other for that last quarter around the sun, to paraphrase the narrator. In sitting on the chair, he surveys the beach as one might imagine God surveying the Earth, with the power to save lives. The distance of the guard from his patrons and the slightly patronizing air he must assume to protect them from themselves is in part the image of God in the lifeguard, raised up and looking down, just as the narrator’s perspective takes on the heady quality of one above the fray. Maybe he just hasn’t joined it: “Someday my alertness will bear fruit; from near the horizon there will arise, delicious, translucent, like a green bell above the water, the call for help, the call, a call, it saddens me to confess, that I have yet to hear.”

Is there any point in summarizing the short story? It’s five pages, and in explicating its beauty I destroy it, like stepping on the flower I mean to pick. “Lifeguard” might answer that “Swimming offers a parable. We struggle and thrash, and drown; we succumb, even in despair, and float, and are saved.” We thrash to describe what we experience, too, and like the student, we’re lost in metaphoric clouds, and yet aware:

You are offended that a divinity student lusts? What prigs the unchurched are! Are not our assaults on the supernatural lascivious, a kind of indecency? If only you knew what de Sadian degradations, what frightful psychological spelunking, our gentle transcendentalist professors set us to, as preparation for our work, which is to shine in darkness.

I feel that my lust makes me glow; I grow cold in my chair, like a torch of ice, as I study beauty. I have studied much of it, wearing all styles of bathing suit and facial expression, and have come to this conclusion:

But to read the conclusion, you’ll have to read the story. It’s not a conclusion that, I suspect, many are likely to agree with, but it’s oddly appropriate, like a recipe mixing cocoa and chili that nonetheless works. And notice the little binaries and paradoxes Updike sets: the lust in the student of God, the “torch of ice,” the shining in darkness not thanks to goodness, but thanks to that lust. Updike would probably chastise me for confusing divinity and theology students, if there is some difference between the two I’m unaware of it. But I am aware of how astonishing this story is, even to me, the person who usually doesn’t like short stories because they end just as I’m finally getting into them.

In another, the eponymous lifeguard thinks that “I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train” It shows a bit of the Northeastern character of the story, since California, Arizona, or Florida, the first two being places I’ve lived, wouldn’t have express trains—they’d have cars, and you’d be crushed by an SUV rather than an express train. “Lifeguard,” published in 1961, came to me by way of the New Yorker’s “Picked-Up Pieces: Moments from a half century of Updike.” In 2006, “My Father’s Tears” was published, and it included this paragraph:

We did not foresee, that moment on the platform as the signal bells a half mile down the tracks warned of my train’s approach, that within a decade passenger service to Philadelphia would stop, and that eventually the station, like stations all across the East, would be padlocked and boarded up. It stood on its empty acre of asphalt parking space like an oversized mausoleum. All the life it had once contained was sealed into silence, and for most of the rest of the century it ignominiously waited, in this city where progress was slow, to be razed.

Perhaps Updike was aware of the anachronistic train metaphor when he used it. Or perhaps he wanted us to place “Lifeguard” in an earlier era, one where religion was more likely to be taken seriously by serious people instead of being usurped by the unbelievers like me or the foolish Sarah Palins of the world. Or Updike recalled his own youth in “Lifeguard,” standing with his father on the soon-to-be-closed platform. Regardless of its temporal meaning, that sentence—“I wake at odd hours and in the shuddering darkness and silence and feel my death rushing toward me like an express train”—could so easily be a cliche, and yet in the context it’s not. “Lifeguard” is a short story that makes me suddenly appreciate the short story and perceive the potential of the form, and it makes me want to read more short stories and more Updike in the search for other works as profound and clever. I’ve not read much Updike—friends keep recommending the Rabbit novels and The Witches of Eastwick, which I keep delaying for no articulated reason beyond the lengthening of my “to read” pile, which grows faster than the time in which those books are to be read. Updike, however, might now have taken a shortcut to the top.

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