Rabbit at Rest
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).1 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’s lane” with sealed-up couples packed in their own capsules under the trees, listening to their own love tunes and acne commercials. He tries in panic to read his road map’s tiny print by the dim overhead light, but all the roads running off to freedom crowd together so he cannot find his own location:
The names melt away and he sees the map whole, a net, all those red lines and blue lines and stars, a net he is somewhere caught in. He claws at it and tears it….
“The trip home is easier.” This opening set piece of Run is a clever satirical sketch, too pat in its weaving of actual songs and commercials into a womb of sound inside the car-womb, but full of virtuoso touches. Yet Updike has already said in this clever opening everything the novel will, with great insistence, keep saying.
Baffled of escape, Rabbit’s mind goes back, as he drives home, into his most durable fantasies, dealing with his moment of stardom in high-school basketball. Like most of Rabbit’s fantasies, the game is seen through sexual lenses:
There was you and sometimes the ball and then the hole, the high perfect hole with its pretty skirt of net. It was you, just you and that fringed ring, and sometimes it came down right to your lips it seemed and sometimes it stayed away, hard and remote and small.
Some critics have taken Rabbit’s basketball dreams as a kind of pure ideal redeeming his life; but Run makes it the measure of arrested adolescence. Unable to face his wife when he drives back into his town (given the intimidating name Mt. Judge), Harry seeks out his old coach for the wisdom he had revered during his high school days. But the boozy coach takes him to a bar where exchanges with another player from Harry’s basketball team show that Harry never understood the reality of the game he played—that his teammates did the dirty work that set up Harry’s perfect shot. In the golden age he still dreams of, he was a resented ball hog. The only service the coach can provide at this point is pimping; he introduces Harry to Ruth, a good-hearted whore.
All through the Rabbit series, Harry’s situation is like that of Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Stewart’s character longs to travel the world, but is stopped at the last minute by domestic entanglements. Given the constant references to popular culture in the series, Updike may have intended the resemblance. In the movie Stewart asks the town whore (played by Gloria Grahame) to climb the local mountain barefoot, but she says no. Rabbit and Ruth actually make that climb up their town’s eponymous Mt. Judge. For Rabbit, this is a purifying experience; but Ruth, who turns out to be the strongest character in the whole series, understands Harry’s instability and makes a determined break from him, carrying the child she has by him outside his blighting grasp.
Harry’s in-laws try to get him back together with his wife, the weak and tippling Janice. Their instrument is a withit minister who likes to hang out at the drug store getting insights into the meaning of life from the inspiring teenagers there. This Protestant version of the Bing Crosby priest is, we now know from Updike’s memoirs, a satirical portrait of his first wife’s father. The outburst of a neo-orthodox Lutheran against this wishy-washy theologian is uncomfortably like Updike’s later assault on his father-in-law for lacking a sense of sin.
The minister’s interference brings on the book’s catastrophe. Lured back to church, Harry feels inspired—i.e., horny—on the way home, and tempts Janice to have an early drink as a way of getting her to bed. When she resists in order to take care of their child, Harry angrily leaves the house. Janice keeps drinking, and—to the tune of a derivative bit of Joycean inner monologue—drowns the baby. Harry denies his own guilt by accusing Janice at the funeral, and runs out of town again in the book’s final pages.
Run is still the best book of the series, though Harry is more a satirical instrument than a convincing character. Take, for instance, the importance of his highschool basketball memories. For some reason, he has never played ball since then. He served (stateside) in the Korean war, which presumably kept him from playing college ball. But his army days in Texas are a blank—he has no basketball memories from them. Though he is supposed to have been the local star, we hear of no college or semipro scouts interested in him. He plays no pick-up ball with young adults—just one pathetic game, in his street clothes, with some unwelcoming teenagers. He does not attend games, or even watch them on TV. Harry’s dreams of basketball are a satiric device stuck onto his character rather than an expression of a real athlete’s love of the game.
An even more egregious flaw in the depiction of Harry, one that critics noticed from the outset, is the foisting onto this “middle American” of Updike’s own preciosity. Harry is supposed to be a son of the working class—even his car-salesman father-in-law is felt as existing in a class above his own. Harry is not a reader. His kid sister has to help him with his homework. But he thinks in the purple passages that Updike cannot resist. Sometimes he uses preppy Englishisms (“Janice would probably have the wind up now”). When he gardens, his mind fumes with Keatsian images—as, presumably, it did when he was playing basketball. This is a problem that gets worse as the series goes on.
Updike now says that he picked up the Angstrom story again because people kept asking where Rabbit went after running off at the first novel’s end. Those people had missed the novel’s point—that nothing can happen to Harry except perpetual flight perpetually baffled.
Rabbit Redux is an attempt to use Angstrom as a seismograph of the Sixties as he had been of the Fifties. But the sensors for registering the mild tremors of the Fifties were not adequate to record the earthquake of the Sixties—so Rabbit becomes an even less convincing instrument for Updike’s purposes. The lower-class “everyman” is drawn to the pinched agenda of Richard Nixon, defending the war in Vietnam and railing against long-haired hippies. He has a flag decal on his car’s back window. He flies into a temper with critics of the war:
He has gotten loud again; it makes him rigid, the thoughts of treachery and ingratitude befouling the flag, befouling him.
But the inner life of a Nixonite is not a thrilling vista for the novelist, so Updike arranges an entirely implausible way for Rabbit to become a fellow traveler of revolution. Janice is now having an affair, and a black fellow worker at the print shop where Rabbit works invites him to a black nightclub. This black has a white hippie at the club he wants to get rid of, and he has chosen the bigoted anti-hippie, Harry Angstrom, as the most eligible person for this task. Harry takes Jill home, and a black revolutionary friend of hers moves in. Skeeter, the black, spends hours berating and catechizing Rabbit. In the resulting seminar-orgy, Rabbit obediently reads aloud long passages from Frederick Douglass (filling pages in the easiest way). Rabbit watches complacently as his thirteen-year-old son, Nelson, turns into one of the long-haired hippies he hates. Resentful neighbors finally burn down Rabbit’s house—the apocalypse of the Sixties scaled to angstrom measurement—and Jill dies in the blaze. Nelson hates his father henceforth for complicity in her death.
The novel is a mess, Updike’s attempt to show he is on top of all the trends of his chosen decade. Rabbit is even less a character and more a journalistic device. A middle American would not be so sympathetic with the less convincing aspects of Sixties rebelliousness; but an Ipswich sophisticate (toying with rebellious styles while wanting to preserve the order that upholds his prosperity) might indulge such fantasies. Under the fiction of Rabbit reaching up from the working class is the reality of Updike reaching down to a solidarity with Nixon’s values. In his memoirs Updike paints a picture of himself at war with the anti-war movement that is convincing in just the ways Rabbit is not. On the one hand, Updike and his friends “smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged.”2 On the other hand, Updike “felt obliged to defend Johnson and Rusk and Rostow, and then Nixon and Kissinger.” He regularly got angry in Rabbit’s way: “My face would become hot, my voice high and tense and wildly stuttery.” But Updike in his own person was reacting less to the actual situation in Indochina than to the style of Johnson’s and Nixon’s critics:
The Rabbit books are all in print now, the first three as Fawcett Crest paper-backs, to which I refer, using just the R-word linked with Rabbit in each title.↩
John Updike, Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (Fawcett Crest, 1989), p. 128. Succeeding quotes are from the chapter "On Not Being a Dove."↩