John Updike’s short story “The Lucid Eye in Silver Town” (1956) tells of thirteen-year-old Jay August’s one-day visit to New York City from the perspective of his adult self. The narrative begins as Jay recalls his and his father’s leaving their home in a small Pennsylvania town to travel to the city where they will be visiting Quincy August, “Uncle Quin.” As Jay’s mother tells them goodbye, in a sudden outburst she declares that she “hates all the Augusts,” a statement that suggests old family conflicts. It confuses Jay because he is surely “an August” and had assumed that his mother was as well. Martin August sets out on the trip with a five-dollar bill in his wallet, intending to buy his son an art book he wants very much. Five dollars represents a significant sum of money for Jay’s father. As Jay recalls, “World War II was almost over but we were still living in the Depression.”
Arriving in New York, they find that Quincy August has not met them at the train station. They walk to his hotel, where they find him in the company of Lucas and Roebuck, two of his well-dressed business contacts. After introductions are made, Quincy suggests his brother and nephew might care to clean up a bit. Martin and Jay go into the suite’s adjoining bedroom and bath, but after freshening up, Martin insists they remain there. Jay thinks this is rude behavior, but his father explains that his brother was trying to get them out of the way while he conducted business. While alone in the bedroom, father and son go to the open hotel room window and, standing shoulder to shoulder, survey the city below. For a moment, they are companions in the day’s adventure. Eventually Quincy calls them back into the suite’s sitting room after Lucas and Roebuck have departed. He says he is disappointed they did not come out to visit with his friends.
The three leave the hotel and take a cab to the Pickernut Club, a small, upscale restaurant. On the ride down Broadway (or up Broadway—Jay isn’t sure), Quincy points out some of the city’s famous sights. He knows New York well, having begun his financial career there before moving to Chicago to make his fortune. As they enter the restaurant, Freddie, the house pianist, begins to play “Quin’s song,” an act of recognition and respect. Then Quincy is greeted by Jerome, the waiter, who is “delighted” to see him again. When Quincy introduces his brother and his nephew to Jerome, Martin shakes the waiter’s hand; Jay senses his father’s social faux pas and does not.
Over refreshments, Jay and Uncle Quin fall into a discussion of the book Jay wants, “a good book of Vermeer.” When his uncle suggests that the French surpass the Dutch in artistic achievement, pointing out that he has four Degas paintings in his living room, the thirteen-year-old contradicts his uncle: “For actually looking at things in terms of paint, for the lucid eye, I think Vermeer makes Degas look sick.” An uncomfortable silence ensues. Martin covers the awkward moment; he says Jay and his mother talk that way “all the time,” but “it’s all beyond me. I can’t understand a thing they say.” Quincy signs the restaurant check, and the three leave in search of a store to buy Jay’s Vermeer book.
Quincy is unsure of the location of a good New York bookstore, having been gone from the city for most of the past fifteen years, but he directs the taxi driver to Forty-Second Street and Sixth Avenue. Arriving there, the driver lets his passengers out near a small park. Jay finds the park inviting, with its pigeons and benches and “office girls in their taut summer dresses,” and leads his father and uncle into the grounds. Standing in the park, looking up at the New York skyline, Jay suddenly feels something “sharp and hard” fall into his eye.
Seeing the boy’s distress, Martin suggests he and Quincy take Jay out of the wind; perhaps he can find whatever has fallen into his son’s eye. Quincy, however, insists that they return to the hotel and find a doctor to examine Jay’s eye. Reluctantly, Martin defers to his brother. Arriving at the hotel, Jay is embarrassed as he is herded through the lobby by his father and his uncle. He tries to look “passably suave” even though his eye is shut and his face is probably red. Jay is appalled when his father shares his plight with an “old bum” in the lobby: “Poor kid got something in his eye.”
Back in the hotel room, Quincy calls for a doctor. With a clean handkerchief, Martin attempts to remove whatever happens to be in Jay’s eye, but his son pushes him away. In pain, Jay refuses to open his eye. He wants to wait for the doctor. Martin withdraws, “regretfully” putting away his handkerchief. The doctor arrives and removes an eyelash from Jay’s eye. Martin pays the doctor with his five-dollar bill. After the doctor leaves, Quincy comes out of the bathroom where he had been during the doctor’s visit. He invites Martin and Jay to dinner, but Martin insists he and his son must be on their way.
Leaving the hotel, Jay wonders if any bookstores might still be open. When his father says all their money has been spent to pay the doctor, Jay becomes cross. At Pennsylvania Station, father and son sit together on a bench and wait for their train. Martin speaks of his brother Quincy: “His thinking is sixty light-years ahead of mine.” He tells Jay that Quincy had hidden in the bathroom to avoid paying the doctor. Jay responds sharply; his father, he says, was the proper person to pay the doctor, not his uncle. Martin agrees with Jay, accepting his son’s criticism without complaint.
Martin’s weak acquiescence fuels anger in Jay, and he lashes out at his father. Why had he not brought more money? Why had he not considered that something unexpected might occur on their trip? What kind of Vermeer book could five dollars have bought, in any event? Jay lectures his father on art books and color plates and the price of even “crummy” secondhand editions. Jay as narrator recalls, “I kept on, shrilly flailing the passive and infuriating figure of my father, until we left the city.” Once on the train, headed home, the boy’s tantrum ends. As narrator, Jay August observes in the story’s conclusion: “Years passed before I needed to go to New York again.”
The title of the story suggests two central themes. Implicit in the title is a central question: Vermeer aside, who among the three main characters possesses “the lucid eye”? Who “sees” with the clearest vision and understanding? Ironically, despite a painfully irritated eye that impairs his sight, thirteen-year-old Jay August seems to see the truth most clearly, at least one aspect of it. Although he is young, Jay possesses an acute understanding of his father and what life has done to him. Jay loves his father even while being ashamed of his weakness and lack of success and sophistication. He browbeats his father, all the while longing for Martin August to stand up for himself.
The structure of the story, however, in its retrospective point of view, develops a second interpretation of “the lucid eye.” Narrator Jay August’s understanding of himself as a boy of thirteen shows it is he who finally sees most clearly. Looking back, Jay recognizes—sometimes wryly—the boy he had been, a “poor kid” from a small Pennsylvania town, one filled with restless longing and pseudo-sophistication. For the young Jay August, New York had been “the silver town.” Watching the “shimmering buildings” as they “arrowed upward and glinted through the treetops,” he had felt “towers of ambition, crystalline” rise within himself.
Jay had chased after his Vermeer art book, striving to be more than he was—the son of a good but ineffectual father and a mother who bitterly rejected Jay’s family and encouraged in her son a sense of superiority. It is the adult Jay August who sees clearly why he had criticized his father so cruelly as they waited for the train to take them home: “The seed of my anger seemed to be a desire to recall him to himself, to scold him out of being old and tired.” As an adult, Jay finally develops “the lucid eye” and truly understands the events of the day he and his father visited Uncle Quin in New York.