John Updike, 1932 – 2009

Rabbit Runs Down

RABBIT AT REST By John Updike (Alfred A. Knopf: $21.95; 512 pp.)

Sunday October 7, 1990


Rabbit is over. The titles in John Updike’s proliferated series–"Rabbit, Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit Is Rich" and now "Rabbit at Rest"–had begun to sound like the Bobbsey Twins. "Rabbit at the Seashore"? "The Rabbit Omnibus"?

Thus, the obligatory joke. I use "obligatory" without irony. It is necessary to laugh at Updike in order to take him with all the seriousness he deserves, just as it was with Vladimir Nabokov. Updike, that almost-heart-breakingly reasonable writer–sometimes to his own harm–would perhaps agree; as Nabokov, all the opposite, would certainly not have done.

Updike is our Lutheran Platonist; he believes in archetypes and tries to write them. Only, for instance, he does not believe that there is an archetype of Man and Woman, to which a middle- or upper-middle-class American of the mid-20th Century is a silly and imperfect approximation that ought to know better. He believes that there is a Silly and Imperfect Middle or Upper Middle Class Mid-Century American That Ought to Know Better archetype , and he writes about it with a brilliance and devotion inspired by the perfection of every one of its imperfections.

Which is why he can seem silly. Or maddeningly undiscriminating with a sensibility that makes an epiphany of each suburban minute and twinge. It can appear that a character is unable to rush across town in response to a midnight call for help without recalling his associations with each building along the way, or attend a midnight tryst without pondering the provenance of the furniture.

What Updike requires to counter what one might call his fictional over-hospitality is something that will provide constraint or urgency. It can be the artifice of form, which may be why he does so well with his short stories. It can be the dramatic rigor of a theme.

I think there is some such rigor in his best novels: The stripped-down abandonment of "The Poorhouse Fair," the concentrated recollection of a father in "The Centaur," the variations on female rage and power in "The Witches of Eastwick," and the lyrical shock of a man running backwards after his young freedom in the first of the Rabbits. A hard-sprung vehicle, in other words, to cut you through the richness.

Urgency is what makes "Rabbit at Rest," perhaps unexpectedly, one of Updike’s finest novels. It is as rich as any of his books in astute detail, in the extraordinary diagnostic of emotional transactions, and the astonishment of getting things exactly right. But if energy seemed to be leaking out of the previous 10-year chronicles of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a powerful current has now taken hold.

Death is downstream and suddenly, with the mutter of the falls below, Rabbit’s evasions and illusions are transformed. A man paddling clumsily in a pond is a low pattern of drama; a man paddling the same way while being swept away is a high pattern; it is the pattern of human fate.

As the book opens, Rabbit is in decline, an old buffalo whose grassland has shrunk. He and Janice are prosperous enough and they live half the year in a Florida condo. At 55–though he seems much older–he has retired from managing the Toyota dealership left to Janice by her father. He plays golf with no enthusiasm, snacks compulsively on junk food, frets and fantasizes, and experiences tiny squeezing chest pains, "little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire."

The balance of their marriage has shifted. If Rabbit is aimless, Janice is purposeful. She undertakes all manner of projects, and when the couple moves back to their home in Pennsylvania for the spring and summer, she goes to work selling real estate. Her life is beginning again; his is running out, and, after two heart attacks, it will end.

"Rabbit at Rest" uses this more or less common situation to make an extraordinary portrait of a man not so much dying as losing his hold on life. The most remarkable thing about it is that this is the same Rabbit we have known all along: doggy in his roving eye, his curiosity, his impulsive self-gratifications, his barking temper, his restless physical energy, his evasions. And doggy, also, in his innocence, his odd openness, his eccentric moon-loyalties. We see all these things weaken along with him, but none of them dies until he does. It is like a complex and familiar tune that seems utterly new when it shifts to a minor key; yet every note is the same, except one. In this case, Rabbit’s upper aorta.

Not only new, though, but clearer and more vividly articulated. From a rich and variegated set of syndromes of his life and times as a male middle-American, the dying Rabbit suddenly becomes a person; as if Updike had been able to bestow a soul on his wonderfully assorted dust.

Every incident is both weighted down and made to live by the foreshadows of death. When Rabbit waits at the Florida airport to meet his son, Nelson, his daughter-in-law, Pru, and his grandchildren, he thinks about the Pan American crash at Lockerbie and imagines the passengers falling through the sky. Death, he imagines, "is shaped like an airplane." The air-conditioned waiting room feels like a crypt.

It is a state of unease. Literally, it is what we are told often precedes a heart attack. All of the details of Rabbit’s illness and treatment are, in fact, so literal that anyone over 50 is likely to experience symptoms reading about them. But it is also a part of a broader theme; an extraordinary fictional rendering of "In the midst of life we are in death." And of Updike’s existential corollary: Only in an awareness of death are we alive.

All of Rabbit’s ventures and convolutions show more vividly in this evening light. One of the book’s central incidents is the crisis with Nelson. Janice and Rabbit had turned over the running of the car dealership to him. When they go back to Pennsylvania in the spring, they discover that he had embezzled $150,000 to feed a cocaine habit. At first it is Harry who takes the initiative, in untangling the finances, getting Nelson–still a rebellious adolescent at 32–to a detox center, and buoying up Pru and the children. But Rabbit’s first heart attack is only one stage of his slipping away; bit by bit it is Janice who takes over.

Pru’s buoying-up introduces another of Rabbit’s larger bits of dying. One night, alone and variously despondent, they make love; it is a valedictory to sex, for this incurably wandering man had stood for life itself. When it later comes to light, it will set off the run that ends the Rabbit cycle and recalls the other run that began it.

Rather than face the family conclave of his wife–outraged and unforgiving–and his son–detoxified and unbearably magnanimous–Rabbit will once more climb into his escape module and drive toward West Virginia. This time he gets to Florida, where he will live for a few weeks in frozen knowledge of his isolation, and wait for a sign of forgiveness from Janice. Before long, after an incident that rounds off the cycle with another bit of terrible symmetry, it will come. Janice, a grieving child, and Nelson, a still-petulant child, will be at Rabbit’s death bed.

"Rabbit at Rest" suffers sometimes from Updike’s gastronomic procrastination–the preparation of a splendid meal so slowly as to demoralize hunger. There are some sideshows that don’t work very well: a penitential encounter between Rabbit and a former mistress, now dying upliftingly of lupus; the comic but cartoonish visit by a Japanese boss to the stricken Toyota dealership.

But the current moves steadily. There is a wonderful casual litany–half-comic, half-terrible–of Rabbit’s compulsive eating. Like Alice nibbling both sides of the mushroom, he alternately pops nitroglycerin tablets and Nutter-Butter cookies. It is suicide by inches:
"He hates himself with a certain relish."

There is the sustained magic in the account of Rabbit’s first heart attack, which comes as he is trying to right a capsized sailboat and pull his granddaughter out of the water. The scenes in which Janice, timidly and hobbled by motherly indulgence, takes Nelson coldly in hand are of a brilliantly conceived subtlety. And the run south, marked by motel stops, all-music radio and junk-food orgies, is a portrait not of one man but of a whole society fleeing itself and running out of gas.

Rabbit, as I have said, finally comes together. The last, beautiful death-bed paragraphs make it clear what we had begun to realize all along. With all his sniffings-about, his wants and wanderings, Rabbit never has been interested in the life around him. What he really wants is deliverance; death is palpably sweet to him; it is what you run to.

Updike has taken four volumes to connive us out of recognizing Rabbit of the runs, the love affairs, the disquiets and complaints, for what he is: Christian, in Pilgrims Progress. Rabbit doesn’t quite know it yet, of course. One critic has predicted a fifth volume: Rabbit Resurrected. I could imagine, rather, a fictional colloquy featuring Rabbit at argument with a clutch of supercilious angels in the next world, and itchy in his wings.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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