Long-Distance Runner

Rabbit at Rest

by John Updike
Knopf, 512 pp., $21.95

Though rabbits are supposed to be short-lived, John Updike has kept his fictional Harry Angstrom, known in high school as Rabbit, on the run through most of Updike’s own professional life. He has submitted decadeend reports on Angstrom in the Fifties (Rabbit, Run, 1960), the Sixties (Rabbit Redux, 1971), the Seventies (Rabbit Is Rich, 1981), and now the Eighties (Rabbit at Rest). There is a compulsive tidiness about this scheme which tries to make up in comprehensiveness what it has increasingly lost in plausibility. Updike’s own workmanlike habits are connected with the interests he lends his characters.

Not that there was much except some gardening to suggest tidiness in the Angstrom of the 1950s. That was the era in which Kerouac and others were out on the road, and Rabbit kept trying to dawdle after them in his own feckless way. Rabbits start fast but tire just as fast. If they do not find a way to fade into the landscape, they are easy prey to their enemies.

Updike plays not only with a zoological conceit, but with a strained scientific one as well. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, an angstrom is

either of two units of wavelength: a: one ten-billionth of a meter—called also absolute angstrom b: the wavelength of the red spectrum line of cadmium divided by 6438.4696—called also international angstrom.

A small thing, then, but useful for measuring other things, and for doing so by its wavelength. Rabbit originally gave us the measure of Fifties triviality. Feeling trapped by domestic “togetherness,” he runs away in the first part of the novel, exhilarated by his lack of a goal, certain that mere motion will become rebirth, a return to simpler things, to existential authenticity: “The road twists more and more wildly in its struggle to gain height and then without warning sheds its skin of asphalt and worms on in dirt.” Like Holden Caulfield, he must break free “of all this phony business.”

But Harry drives through the night on a mini-stream of commercially mobilizable Angst. Listening to the car radio, he has an attention span no greater than the arc of an affair charted in a ballad. He skips in and out of adolescent crises and blisses—“Venus” followed by “Pink Shoe Laces.” And the commercial yearnings that drove him out just as easily winch him back around. The radio plays “I Ran All the Way Home Just to Say I’m Sorry.” As rock-and-roll gives way to golden oldies, “Rabbit pictures married couples driving home to babysitters after a meal out and a movie.”

The few people he encounters—in a diner, at a gas station—intimidate him by their strangeness, scare him back into the capsule of his car. His experience of the “open road” is one of stale air accumulating as the automobile becomes a moving home. When at last he thinks he has come to unspoiled nature, he finds he is in a “lover …

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