By Troy Patterson
Updated November 24, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

In his new book Hooking Up, in a self-serving polemic called ”My Three Stooges,” Tom Wolfe trumpets the power of the naturalistic novel to capture the ”irresistibly lurid carnival of American life today” while lambasting the writers John Irving, Norman Mailer, and John Updike — all detractors of Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full — for penning ghostly, hopelessly narcissistic stuff. In short, Wolfe talks trash.

Almost as if in response, in Licks of Love Updike fires off one of the ”Rabbit” stories he dreams up every decade or so. The 182-page ”Rabbit Remembered” tries to work both sides of the street, to document the dying months of the ’90s while conjuring the spirit of a hopeless narcissist. Forty years ago, Rabbit, Run introduced Harry ”Rabbit” Angstrom, the rangy, aimless middle American who’d go on to star in three further novels. Harry died in 1990’s Rabbit at Rest, and ”Rabbit Remembered,” a tail to the tale, looks at what was left in his wake.

A doorbell hoarsely rings in Brewer, Pa., and Janice Harrison, Harry’s remarried widow, is staring across her doorstep at a somewhat sluttish-looking nurse named Annabelle Byer, the product of an affair Rabbit had way back when. In his typically crystalline prose, Updike describes how Janice sizes up the girl and her motives and how she mulls over lost time while scooting about town in her black LeBaron convertible. Janice’s ex-cokehead son, Nelson, is now a 42-year-old mental-health counselor divorced from his wife and living at home. He takes a shine to his half-sister that’s both fraternal and not a little incestuous. Nothing much happens, but by the holidays, fragments of families are meeting up and falling apart and piecing themselves — and thus Rabbit — together again. Throughout, people take in the noise of the age: impeachment, American Beauty, the Y2K bug, the new VW bug…. And Updike seems particularly hung up on tongue studs.

There are a dozen short stories in Licks of Love too; most are not just short but small, and they’re all pointed in the same direction as the main event anyway — toward past books and ancient desires. With his keen looks at (un)settling old scores, Updike has designed the glimmering ”Rabbit Remembered” as a seductive news brief. It’s a ghost story, to be sure, but each character is haunted by the present, and American life is all American gothic. It turns out that poor Harry Angstrom, a monument to the way our little lives are led, was a man in full after all. B+