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Long-Distance Runner

I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President.

The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment.

They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders.

War was being waged by a privileged few upon the administration and the American majority that had elected it.

Updike’s distaste for the aesthetics of protest is itself an aesthetic shiver, an expression of the reactionary dandyism he shares with Tom Wolfe and William Buckley more than with his working-class hero, Harry Angstrom. Critics noticed that there was too much of Updike’s sensibility in the Rabbit of Run. There is too much of Updike’s own political-theological nonsense in the Rabbit of Redux. So we get John Updike playing Peggy Noonan:

They, Unitarian or Episcopalian or Jewish, supported Roosevelt and Truman and Stevenson out of enlightenment, de haut en bas, whereas in my heart of hearts, I, however veneered with an education and button-down shirts, was de bas.3

Joining Rabbit is now an act of homage, not of creation. Not so much a nostalgie de la boue. More like nostalgie du boob.

Rabbit is, like his creator, a believer—at least when using belief to one-up nonbelievers. As Rabbit will reflect in Rest: “When God hadn’t a friend in the world, back there in the Sixties, Rabbit couldn’t let go of him.” Speaking in his own person, Updike says: “I enjoyed the antibohemian gesture of my deadpan churchgoing.” By such a gesture he can “preserve a distance not only from Manhattan, but [from] my Unitarian wife.”

Updike presents his own defense of the Vietnam War as an assault on the infuriating Unitarianism of his father-in-law, which is too prissy and ethical to correspond with his own theological tastes.

A dark Augustinian idea lurked within my tangled position: a plea that Vietnam—this wretched unfashionable war led by clumsy Presidents from the West and fought by the nineteen-year-old sons of the poor—could not be disowned by a favored enlightened few hiding behind college deferments, fleeing to chaste cool countries, snootily pouring pig blood into draft files, writing deeply offended Notes and Comments, and otherwise pretending that our great nation hadn’t had bloody hands from the start, that every generation didn’t have its war, that bloody hands didn’t go with having hands at all. A plea, in short, for the doctrine of Original Sin.

This extraordinary outburst is a defense not of the Vietnam war but of any war. Our generation must have its war, aside from the merits of this or that conflict; indeed, the less defensible a war may be, the better it rubs people’s noses in the “down-dirty sex and the bloody mess of war” (an interesting conjunction). All war serves the good purpose of confounding the high-minded. It does not matter how many peasants die halfway around the world if some fashionable curates can be discomfited at home.

Updike remarks that his marriage was breaking up at the time when he became a vociferous hawk, and he relates the two events. One of his happy memories from the time occurred as he was driven home from skiing with a neighbor couple:

While my wife sat in the front seat and her hair was rhythmically irradiated with light from opposing headlights, [I was] patiently masturbating my back-seat neighbor through her ski pants, beneath our blanketing parkas, and taking a comradely pride in her shudder of orgasm just as we hit the Ipswich turn-off.

Another covert victory for Saint Augustine.

In Redux Rabbit is transformed, not because the character undergoes an inner progression from the Fifties to the Sixties but because Updike’s own purposes are changing. In Run, Harry was a medium through which to view and criticize the Fifties: Updike had the necessary sympathy for his character without a complicity in his limitations. But in the second novel Updike uses the brutishness of Rabbit to scare off the “high-minded” people whose hands are not bloodied enough to suit God’s purposes. He has entered into an alliance with his character, rejoicing in his endless rabbit-couplings as a victory against Unitarian-allied wives. Even Rabbit’s beatings of Janice and deliberate degrading of Ruth can be defended as a victory for “Augustinian” reality.4 Updike describes his childhood fascination with torturing his toys and dog as part of his defense of the Vietnam War, all too appropriately.

Rich

Updike makes the conventional comments on the Seventies as a Me Decade. Rabbit has become the manager of his late father-in-law’s car lot. Never much of a reader, he now devours Consumer Reports, buys Krugerrands, and worries about his son’s propensity for automobile accidents. He has just enough now to be worried about losing it: “To be rich is to be robbed.” He arranges a Caribbean vacation to sleep with one neighbor’s wife but ends up with another neighbor—Thelma, married to the basketball player who ran interference for Harry in high school. Thelma, dying of lupus, is a martyr to her love for Harry. Having risked her life for him by going out in the sun, she wants to serve him in new ways:

I want to do something for you so you won’t forget me, something you’ve never had with anybody else…. How many have you fucked up the ass?

One service deserves another:

He begs her to tell him something that he can do for her that Ronnie has never done. She gets into a bathtub and has him urinate on her. “It’s hot!” she exclaims, her sallow skin drummed upon in designs such as men and boys drill in the snow. They reverse the experience, Thelma awkwardly straddling, and having to laugh at her own impotence, looking for the right release in the maze of her womanly insides. Above him as he waits her bush has a masculine jut, but when her stream comes, it dribbles sideways; women cannot aim, he sees.

Rabbit blossoms under such treatment. All he needs is to be worshiped:

He dares confide to Thelma, because she has let him fuck her up the ass in proof of love, his sense of miracle at being himself, himself instead of someone else, and his old inkling, now fading in the energy crunch, that there was something that wanted him to find it, that he was here on earth on a kind of assignment.

Rebaptized in Thelma’s stream, Rabbit shares the language Updike uses of himself in the chapter of his memoirs called “On Being a Self Forever”: Gratia Dei, sum quad sum.

Rabbit seeks out his daughter by Ruth, the whore of the first novel, now a farmer’s wife; but Ruth is still strong enough to send Harry away. He must settle for the granddaughter born to him after his son Nelson—who had pushed Pru, his pregnant wife, down the stairs—runs off and leaves Pru to Harry and Janice. The son now runs, leaving Harry to take care of things (like Jimmy Stewart in Bedford Falls). When Nelson told him earlier of his travels, Harry thought: “Places where Rabbit has never been—his blood has traveled for him, along the tracks of his dreams.”

Rest

As the new novel begins, Harry seems at last to have escaped Mt. Judge. Nelson, returned to his wife and child, runs the car lot during the winter, while Harry and Janice stay in their Florida condominium. The book starts with a long set piece in which Rabbit picks up his son’s family, down for a visit, at the Florida airport. The irritations of family travel and reunion are described with the bravura air of Run‘s opening sequence.

But Harry cannot escape Mt. Judge. His son has been stealing from the company to feed a cocaine habit, and Harry must return to save the Toyota franchise. He fails in this effort. In a questionable bit of ethnic humor, the Toyota representative lets Rabbit know what will happen to the America his son represents.

Who is father and mother of such son? Where are they? In Frorida, enjoying sunshine and tennis, while young boy prays games with autos… He roses face for Toyota company…. Toyota does not enjoy bad games prayed with its autos.

Rabbit is fat now, and suffering heart attacks, but eating junk food while the junk ads on the radio remind him of his life. The tidy schema of the series makes Harry revisit all his old flames. (He also adds his daughter-in-law to the list of those he has slept with.) The man who was complicitous in his daughter’s drowning as the series began has his first heart attack trying to rescue his granddaughter from drowning. By truly Dickensian coincidence, Ruth’s (and his) daughter shows up as a nurse in the hospital where he is dying—done in by a fatal basketball game (one-on-one at a sandlot, the kind of game he played at the beginning of Run).

Since Updike has made Rabbit his own exact contemporary, the nostalgic review of old TV shows and changing music styles is indistinguishable from similar descriptions in the memoirs. Rabbit even has Updike’s teeth, and his habit of finding lost food in them. The last novel is the longest one in the series and the most profligate with pretty writing. Harry thinks of sexual arousing as having “his eye down there opened. Getting a hard-on you can feel the foreskin sweetly tug back, like freezing cream lifting the paper cap on the oldtime milk bottles.”

There is an air of forgiveness to the novel, since Harry has lost any sense of what might need forgiving. As Janice says of him: “He had a hard time when we were younger giving up his dreams and his freedom but he seems at peace now.” This is less forgiveness than forgetfulness, since Harry’s creator has lost track of what he originally meant him to mean. Rabbit loves the feel-good Reagan years; but, as usual, it is Updike the aesthete who speaks through Harry the slob:

The guy [Reagan] had a magic touch. He was a dream man. Harry dares say, “Under Reagan, you know, it was like anaesthesia.”

Updike began with the aim of saying some hard true things about what is wrong with America. By succumbing to his own stylistic solipsism, Updike ends up exemplifying what is wrong. Description makes up for analysis; detail for design; inclusiveness for rigor; and mere length for moral heft or grip.

The series seems to be at an end, but it could go on forever. Rabbit’s son is as empty, but as prettily describable, as Rabbit—we could get Nelson is Needy, Nelson Nitens, or (in deference to his cocaine habit) Nelson the Noseless. The endless verbal cleverness of Updike can run unimpeded by the weights of moral insight or of judgment. Rabbit’s own town was misnamed. It should have been named Mt. Fudge.

  1. 3

    Updike, Self-Consciousness, pp. 123–124.

  2. 4

    There are wife-beating episodes in three of the four Rabbit novels.

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