Rabbit at Rest
In the age of families: the ’50s. The age of psycho-political voyages and discoveries: the ’60s. The age of oodles: The Reagan ’80s. The waning age: right now. These are the defining moments of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, and with each volume the author has seemed more determined to hold a mirror up to the age at hand. That determination is responsible for the brio with which he evokes middle-class manners in Rabbit at Rest, the newest and last of the books. It’s also responsible for a diminution of moral and psychological intensity — increasing relish for the look and sound of things, declining interest in the causes and meanings.
In Rabbit at Rest, Harry ”Rabbit” Angstrom is in his mid-50s, a grandfather, father, golfer, and snowbird. He and his wife, Janice, have put the family business — a Toyota agency in Brewer, Pa. — in the hands of their son, Nelson, and settled into a condo in Florida. Straight ahead lie the space and comfort of early retirement, American-style.
Bad eating habits clog Harry’s arteries; he suffers a heart attack. Janice is restless: She longs to sell real estate back in Brewer. Son Nelson is into Cocaine, not cars. The novelist strings his minimal plot lines on dark questions: When will Rabbit wake up to his son’s addiction? When will Rabbit’s own addictions (to red meat and bear, scrapple drenched in maple syrup, corn chips, Good and Plenty’s, dry-roasted peanuts, and the like) finish him off? Headed graveward, Rabbit learns that his wife won’t mind his passing (what’s the death of a husband compared to the fun of closing deals?). He also learns that Nelson is a true turkey (the boy paid for his highs by running the Toyota agency irretrievably into the ground).
Spectacularly readable, Rabbit at Rest is filled with news of contemporary life (on matters ranging from the depth of loyalty to Toyota, Inc., among jingo American car dealers to the fear of AIDS among hetero-recreational druggies). What’s troubling is that in pursuing fun the book seems to jettison the search for understanding that animated most of the earlier Rabbits. In the first two books issues of religion and politics leant dimension to Harry Angstrom’s personal chaos; he actually tried to think, even to listen. But in Rabbit Is Rich serious voices grew fainter (Rabbit became a windbag), and now they’ve disappeared.
If there is an erosion of values and attachments in Rabbit’s world, the success of the sexual revolution is partly to blame. Many people in Rabbit, Run take domestic commitments earnestly; in the new book almost nobody does. When Rabbit’s wife chides him after learning he’s been sleeping with his son’s wife, Rabbit makes jokes. (”It was just like a normal one-night stand. She was hard up and I was at death’s door. It was her way of playing nurse).
But changing sexual mores hardly explain everything. Rabbit at Rest‘s vexing thinness may also derive from the novelist’s reluctance to contest the omnipresent materials of pop culture. The hero occasionally reaches for intensity, but he’s regularly engulfed (Archie Bunker-style) in sort of snappy show-biz exchanges cited above. Updike does these exceedingly well, but Rabbit and Janice Angstrom were easier to care about when they drew sympathy from their creator that couldn’t be confused with laugh-track sneers or applause.
There are compensations, naturally, John Updike is an immensely accomplished writer. The book’s major setting if Florida and the place puts in full play the author’s unique powers of observations. You smell the air freshener in condo corridors, hear the portentous intoning of Bingo numbers over the rec-room speaker systems, chuckle at the decor of everybody from tonight’s wine steward (”in summer tux, a king of bicycle lock around his neck”) to a crowd of greeters in an airport waiting room: ”Men with bankers’ time white haircuts and bankers’ long grave withholding faces wearing Day-Glo yellow green tank tops stencilled CORAL POINT or CAPTIVA ISLAND and tomato-red bicycle shorts…”
The energy is enormous, but Updike seems to have found nothing in the material of this junk civilization worth his working over with imaginative sympathy. Describing this dazzling, frustrating work in a speech to booksellers, John Updike called it ”a depressed book about a depressed man.” If he means there’s a hollowness inside the brilliance he’s right as rain. B+