American novelist (Rabbit series of novels, The Witches of Eastwick), poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic.
A & P, first published in the New Yorker magazine, July 22 1961, and then in the collection Pigeon Feathers, in 1962
Available to read online here
This is the fifth and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration.
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
A & P
19-year-old Sammy operates one of the checkouts at A & P Supermarket. One day, he’s just ringing up some groceries for a customer when three girls walk in, all dressed in swimsuits – an unexpected delight for Sammy, who accidentally then rings up the same item twice, much to the annoyance of his customer.
His eyes follow the girls admiringly around the store; one of them, whom he calls Queenie, is particularly attractive, and it’s his lucky day when she ends up with her friends at his checkout till wanting to buy a 49c Herring snack. She offers a dollar bill from her cleavage to pay for it, when Lengel, the manager, sees the girls and marches over to them, reminding them that this is not the beach, and next time they come in, they should have their shoulders covered.
At first, Queenie blushes apologetically, but Lengel continues to make his point and she starts defending herself, saying that she’s perfectly respectably dressed. Lengel disagrees and, upset at the treatment he has dealt out to the girls, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Lengel suggests he shouldn’t act so rashly; he’s been a friend of Sammy’s parents for many years and this will be an embarrassment for everyone. But Sammy is determined, ceremoniously removing his A & P apron and bow tie, and leaving Lengel to work at the cash register.
Coming out of the store, Sammy realises the girls have gone. And the regret starts to kick in…
Short and sweet, this wry little tale is amusingly told, with excellent attention to character, particularly Sammy, Lengel and Sammy’s colleague Stokesie. Updike can produce excellent turns of phrase; I particularly enjoyed the description of Queenie’s dollar bill emerging from her costume as “having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”.
I’ve seen analyses online that suggest the story is symbolic of anti-commercialism and that Sammy represents a voice of reason making a stand against encroaching capitalism. My own view is that this is one of those little stories that just take a slice of life at one particular moment and explores it to the full. There’s no doubt that the unexpected appearance of three girls in swimsuits in a supermarket a long way from the beach is going to cause a young man to let his mind wonder.
His surprise but real repercussion of finding himself out of a job because he did what he thought was The Right Thing will no doubt come as a shock, but as he says, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” I have no doubt that young Sammy will move on to bigger and better things, so I don’t think anyone needs worry about him.
The next story in the anthology is the first of four detached autobiography stories, First Confession by Frank O’Connor, yet another author about whom I know absolutely nothing!