In "Ex-Basketball Player," what is John Updike's attitude?

2 Answers

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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What do you mean by attitude? You might find it helpful to expand on this question and make it more specific? Do you mean what attitude does Updike have about Flick Webb and his situation in life? I think we can clearly infer that Updike feels great sadness for Flick Webb, who, like Pearl Avenue, has started off with so much hope only to be curtailed suddenly:

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,

Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off

Before it has a chance to go two blocks...

The geography of the streets matches the trajectory of Flick Webb's life: both are "cut off" before they have a chance to go anywhere. In addition, you might like to consider the way that Updike presents Flick Webb as a character who is haunted by the ghosts of his former victories, which is made all the more poignant by the way in which his current life is so devoid of success, meaning or purpose. Consider the last three lines of the poem:

Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods

Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers

Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

The way that the metaphor in these lines is used to compare the tiers of candy to the "bright applauding" bleachers of his former matches creates a pitiful picture of a man who cannot reconcile his early success with his present mediocre existence.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In poetry, the attitude that is felt in the verse is much like the tone. Tone is often derived from direct statements, but it frequently resides in three other areas of a poem:

  • The manner of presentation of certain images
  • The implied meanings of words and sentences
  • The rhyme and rhythms--the "music" of the poem

--Presentation of images

Throughout the poem entitled "Ex-Basketball Player," there are certain images that convey the straightforward tone and attitude of the speaker as he describes the dead end of the trolley tracks that "stop" and are "cut off" without having "a chance to go two blocks."  

This matter-of-fact tone continues throughout the poem as the narration describes in free verse the glory of Flick's great history as a hero of the basketball team. He scored hundreds of points with his "hands...like wild birds." Now, he merely "dribbles an inner tube" and holds a lug wrench in his dead-end job.

--Implied meanings of words and sentences

The disappointment of the basketball star having been reduced to a mediocre job and life is suggested by the figurative meanings for words such as Pearl Avenue's being "cut off" beyond the high school lot /"[B]efore it has a chance to go two blocks." For like the street, Flick's life of fame is also abruptly ended after he leaves high school. Further in the poem, "Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps." The implication of this sentence is that Flick now is part of a scene of ludicrous things as, like the pumps, his long arms hang "loose and low." 

When he is not working, Flick "hangs around" Mae's luncheonette. He has little to do, and he has lost his admiring crowd. Now he merely "plays pinball, smokes thin cigars," and nods to a rack of crackers and other snacks. 

--The "music" of the poem

The parallel structure of the phrases,

...just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats...,

causes Flick's job to sound routine. In the last stanza, Flick is "grease gray" as he "plays pinball." The alliteration of these phrases creates a swift movement that suggests the wasting of his life. Then, as he nods to the "bright applauding tiers," they are but a reminder of Flick's sad misfortune as now the tiers are merely filled with only "...applauding.... Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads."

Clearly, then, the tone of John Updike's poem, "The Ex-Basketball Player" is one of nostalgia, disappointment, and loss.

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