It should come as no surprise that the new decade finds Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom once again keeping time with death. It has always been one of his more familiar companions; it's part of what gives him more substance than any other Updike character. John Updike has made the play of words on paper his life--in poetry, in fiction--and the world he creates exists as few other fictional worlds do. Yet he's always been overly willing to ornament that world with the trappings of his own life--the comfortable settings, the nagging ethics, and the more than occasional philanderings of middle-class and upper-middle-class existence as it's played out in homes where the most recent New Yorker rests on the coffee table.
If Updike's Rabbit novels have outclassed the rest of his writings, it's partly because Rabbit's rise to the comfortable life seems deserved, in light of his humble origins and the trials of the first two books, and partly because each book is charged with mortality--one of the few circumstances, after all, the rich man shares with everyone else. Rabbit loses an infant daughter in Rabbit, Run (1960), and emerges in the first paragraph of the sequel, Rabbit Redux (1971), as a "ghost" attempting to return to life. After a slight respite in Rabbit Is Rich (1981), death is there again in Rabbit at Rest--in the very first sentence. This time, however, death makes an uncharacteristically clumsy entrance:
"Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what's floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane."
Try reading this passage aloud. If there is a touch of satire there, a hint of humor, it isn't sustained. In fact, the airplane reappears time and again early on as a symbol of death. Death preoccupies Rabbit from the first sentence, but what preoccupies Updike is the urgent need to get his points across to any and all readers, with a minimum of ambiguity. He underscores everything, so that the book soon becomes as painfully obvious as one of the television shows Rabbit regularly rails against. When Rabbit saves his granddaughter from drowning, at the cost of a heart attack, immediately other characters are commenting that the rescue may have been a desperate attempt to atone for his daughter, drowned 30 years before. Again and again Updike undercuts good work by overemphasizing subtle elements to make sure everyone gets the point. In an interesting scene early in the second half of the book, Rabbit ponders the universe aloud in a fashion that equates his story with that of the United States.
"Do you ever get the feeling, now that Bush is in, that we're kind of on the sidelines, that we're sort of like a big Canada, and what we're doing doesn't much matter to anybody else? Maybe that's the way it ought to be. It's kind of a relief, I guess, not to be the big cheese."
This is immediately followed by a scene in which he is Uncle Sam in the Fourth of July parade, dressed in red, white, and blue right down to his Hush Puppies. Once Updike was willing to alienate all but the few--as he did in the overly rich Greek symbolism of the 1963 The Centaur--and these bows to the cheap seats are embarrassing. His alter ego in Rabbit at Rest resembles nothing so much as Sylvester Stallone's Rocky.
Rabbit has become--partly through Updike's own doing, partly through the chance occurrence of his having struck a popular chord--Updike's barometer for measuring the state of the country. Run is the most timeless book in the Rabbit series; it belongs to no set era but rather to a state of mind: a young adult (U.S.) male's resistance to responsibility. Redux, on the other hand, is the book most burdened by its place in time. Rabbit is the passive "ghost" to which the rather superficial counterculture must be sacrificed so he can return to life. Rich is the most successful in exploiting its setting--and even predicting the future. Rabbit makes money moving small, efficient Toyotas during the Carter gas crisis, and in a way foreshadows the Reagan era in his ability to both acknowledge and resist the pull of ethics and responsibility. (The scene in which he and Janice make love on a bed covered with Krugerrands remains memorable not only to us but to Rabbit. He touches on it in reverie in Rest.) In Rest, however, Updike explicitly draws attention to the character's pop-culture significance in order to say meaningful things about the country--as if the burdens of family and oncoming death weren't enough for the stricken Rabbit.
Reflecting the American mood, Rabbit thinks: "Doing nothing works for Bush, why not for [me]?" "Without the cold war, what's the point of being an American?" "If there's anything you can count on Americans to be these last ten years it's selfish." "The beautiful thing about history is it puts you right to sleep." "Life, it's incredible, it's wearing the world out." The book is especially devoted to that last, dichotomous attitude, but Updike finds few opportunities in this novel, unlike the others, to show how incredible life can be, and ample evidence of how wearying it is. At the Fourth of July parade, "Strange people with puzzled Eighties faces keep asking directions, because he is dressed as Uncle Sam and should know. He has to keep telling them he doesn't know anything. . . . They call to him. They wave ironically, calling "Yaaaay' at the idea of Uncle Sam, this walking flag, this incorrigible taxer and frisky international mischief-maker."
Yet Rabbit's march as Uncle Sam becomes the one moment in the book when Updike's style breaks free. Rabbit describes the onlookers lining the streets as a generation "younger, more naked, less fearful, better" than those who came before, and he concludes that "all in all this is the happiest fucking country the world has ever seen." It's the only passage of exuberant writing in the book, and it's undercut delightfully: Rabbit's exuberance is in part brought on by popping a nitroglycerin capsule.
The novel opens hurrying and gasping for breath, as if Updike were trying, all too successfully, to mirror his main character's mood. The first section, set in Florida, has none of the rolling, meaningful descriptions of place for which Updike is known. It rushes toward the heart attack that both the reader and Rabbit anticipate; when it strikes, Rabbit finds "a satisfaction in his skyey enemy's having at last found him." The passage describing his granddaughter's near drowning while they're out on a small sailboat and his tacking back to shore, fighting both the sail and the pain in his chest, is one of the most urgent and dramatic in the book. Yet even here the small touches are so obvious--employing the conspicuous "skyey" to allude once again to the airplane as death symbol--that they're like the unwelcome pinches of an old man.
The tone of the book changes abruptly with Rabbit's return to a fragile health and home court in Pennsylvania, as he drives through Brewer, Mount Judge, Penn Park. "Every other house in this homely borough holds the ghost of someone he once knew who now is gone. Empty to him as seashells in a collector's cabinet." The writing begins to seem healthier, breathing more regularly and showing some signs of life. Yet his destination is the house of a former lover now dying of lupus, and we're soon back to the old, familiar concern with mortality. Rabbit says to his former lover, "Without you, I don't have a life." "Maybe Nature is trying to tell us something," she responds. "We're too old to keep being foolish." There's no respite for Rabbit, at least as far as mundane dialogue goes, but is that an excuse for there being no respite for the reader?
Rabbit Is Rich is perhaps the best of the series because Updike deflects the theme of mortality and looks toward something more substantial and equally universal: family responsibilities. It's there Rabbit begins to try to come to terms with his wife, Janice, "the dumb mutt," and his then-teenage son, Nelson, who is referred to as "the kid," lowercase, as in "How gay is the kid, anyway?" He never achieves a full conciliation with his family, not in Rich and, despite the title, not in Rest. At times, dealing with his family, he's at his most unsympathetic--cranky, fixed, unresponsive. Which is what makes it all the more powerful when, at the very end of Rich, he is presented with his first grandchild, a girl:
"Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His."
In Rabbit Is Rich, Updike finds real power in the elementary concept that life goes on: Rabbit surrenders space, material goods, energy to his offspring. It's something the novelist attempts to build on in Rest. That same granddaughter, now nine years old, is the one who triggers Rabbit's heart attack on the sailboat, by either hiding or drowning under the fallen sail. (It's one of the few ambiguous events in the book--aside from the very end, of course.) In Rest Rabbit is forced to make room for Nelson on the Springer Motors Toyota lot where Rabbit himself found sanctuary only a decade before, but Nelson wastes the opportunity because of his cocaine addiction (of course, since this is the 80s). In the end, even Rabbit's home is jeopardized by his offspring. Rabbit characterizes his routine, day-to-day heart pains as "that singeing sensation . . . as if a child inside him is playing with lighted matches." While this metaphor builds on the idea of family as the emblem of death, it is also trite, and Updike hammers away at the line. A few pages later, "That bad child inside his chest keeps playing with matches"; and much later, "That evil child is still playing with matches in there."
The confused Rabbit has often been unsympathetic to the reader--human, all too human--but in Rest, for the first time, Updike is as weary in his treatment of the character as the character is himself. Rabbit Redux finds Rabbit depressed, but the book's style runs counter to that mood; it's sometimes overblown--a familiar criticism of Updike--but that's excusable here, in part because it's the writer himself straining against Rabbit's very resignation. In Rest, "for one flash [Rabbit] sees his life as a silly thing it will be a relief to discard," and it can't be said that Updike fights this vision any too vigorously. Rabbit is so out of it that he's the last to recognize his son's drug problem, long after every member of his family and every reader is aware of it. Why should Updike take such pains to emphasize Rabbit's blindness? It makes the character come off as not merely unsympathetic but something of a dolt. And Updike glibly equates Rabbit's self-destructive impulses--his insatiable hunger for the unhealthy foods that jeopardize his life--with his son's drug abuse. Since Rabbit is represented in no uncertain terms as the incarnation of the United States, his overconsumption also takes on symbolic meaning, to the point where Rabbit is weighed down, not only literally but metaphorically, with unsightly love handles.
There's an air of going through the motions in this novel. The possibility that Rabbit might have an illegitimate child somewhere is raised and dismissed in an obligatory fashion: just touching base for those readers who've read along from the beginning. Updike is at his most daring in finding a way for Rabbit to reject his paternal responsibilities; though his son has usurped him on the car lot, Rabbit finds a way to usurp his son. Yet that only sends Rabbit full circle, out on the run again, only this time more worldly-wise and efficient than in the first book. He winds up where the series opened: enviously watching a pickup game of school-yard basketball.
Rest is being marketed as the last Rabbit novel--even the blurb in the New York Times Book Review best-sellers list remarks on it. And there's no attempt to maintain any suspense whatsoever. Throughout the book Rabbit, that once-great high school athlete, moves stiffly for the first time--but it's not just the stiffness of age, it's the stiffness of the author. Updike kills off Rabbit almost as if he were tired of him. At one point Rabbit remarks that his wife is "a channel that can't be switched," but in my mind Updike makes Rabbit a television--a reflection of his culture that can be so easily switched off, Updike seems to suggest something about the culture itself and its easy demise.
The book strikes a pose of doom from the first, and it's no wonder that reviewers have championed it. The sorts of things it implies about our culture are the sorts of things that appeal to writers who believe that no one (but them) reads anymore, who find the culture rotting from the core, who manage to see even rap music--with its verbal braggadocio--as the reflection of a new dearth of literacy. The Rabbit died: what better proof that a new era of cultural decay is upon us?
I'm no more convinced that our society is dying than I am that Rabbit is dead. Even the dust jacket calls Rest Updike's "final" Rabbit opus, but the text is not so conclusive. Rabbit's last word is "enough," but the penultimate word is "maybe," leaving Updike the option of continuing. In Rest he shows no desire to continue, which is one reason Rabbit's death has been so universally assumed, but I think that in ten years, with the culture proving itself as endlessly vital as ever--no matter what beckons, war, depression, or President Madonna--Updike may be moved to revive his greatest character. Without feeling obligated to put a Rabbit book on the market, Updike might actually return to the character and find him and the world he occupies both refreshed.
Perhaps the problem is that Rabbit was himself so lifelike that I prefer to remember him as he was in his prime rather than as he was on his deathbed. Perhaps Updike has done such a consistent job of tying Rabbit to his culture that, since I refuse to believe the culture is dying, I refuse to believe Rabbit is dead. Whichever, I don't believe we've seen the end of Rabbit Angstrom. Rabbit at Rest seems such a long, slow, deliberate murder that I can't believe Updike is capable of going through with it in the end.
Rabbit at Rest by John Updike, Alfred A. Knopf, $21.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.