John Updike, the dazzling author, appeared, and still appears, to be one of Augustine’s “fair and fit”—and never more so than when viewed among his male literary colleagues who often tend to show the lump and bump of gene, bad habits, the spread and paste of a lifetime spent taking one’s own dictation. For this tall, and one wants to say still young, man, despite certain dwindling-days, September-song modulations in the composition of his memoirs, Self-Consciousness, everything seemed to fall into place. An only child, treasured by nice intelligent parents who, if not particularly well-to-do, were prosperous in respect and plausibility; born in a pleasant Pennsylvania village, Shillington, with its “idle alleys and darkened four-square houses,” its high school, movie house, stores, avenues and streets whose names will have on his pages the curved beauty of Havana and Caracas, even if they are Pennwyn and Lynoak.
Updike went on to Harvard and, as a young writer, came under the benevolent paternalism of The New Yorker, married early, had children, moved to Massachusetts, and, with an uncommon creative energy, wrote stories, novels, poems, essays, and still writes on and on with great success about suburban landscapes or small-town ones efflorescent in observed detail, prodigal in image, brashly knowing and accomplished in the rhythms of current dialogue and steaming with the orifices and bodily fluids of many fluent copulations.
And then, with an admirable and defiant gallantry, he designed in The Coup his African country, Kush, whose
peanut oil travels westward the same distance as eastward our ancestors plodded, their neck-shackles chafing down to the jugular, in the care of Arab traders, to find in the flesh-markets of Zanzibar eventual lodgings in the harems and palace guards of Persia and Chinese Turkestan.
And then again, he, as productive of print as a Victorian, transmogrifies himself into a sluggish, anxious Jewish novelist, Bech, mooning on Riverside Drive with an exact ironical accent before taking off for a government-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union and various satellite capitals in Eastern Europe where he treads the ancient, war-worn stones and confers with the resident writers, one of whom says he plans to “defect as soon as he gets his laundry back.”
A promiscuous, astonishing span; a labyrinthine talent through which the author makes a smooth, experienced, dashing, even dandified passage. A bit of a parson, too; something icy inside the melting flesh of concupiscence.
Updike’s memoirs bear the title, Self-Consciousness, to indicate the natural authorial awareness and, more unexpected, to reveal a distress arising from the envelope of the self, the flesh and bones and organs which have been the source of pain and of the “self-consciousness” of hidden damage. He has lived with torments devastating, if not life-threatening, and it is a hard heart that could turn from these ills with a shrug of into each life some rain must fall. The greatest suffering has been a long battle with a virulent psoriasis. His account of the scabs, blisters, eruptions, and treatments is of such fullness and wounded feeling one would not want, in description, to substitute a version other than his own. In his going about, the disease was not only hurtful and exhausting but also humiliating, as when he was required to learn to swim at Harvard. On a some-what descending scale, he has endured bouts of stuttering, asthma, tooth and gum problems. So there it is, a host of imperfections and acute discomforts, woes rendered with an eloquent and almost sunny confidence.
My sufferings are purely physical, the aged, dying Santayana is supposed to have said in order to fend off the redemptive efforts of nuns and priests who might wish, at the end, to seduce him from the teasing ambiguity of “There is no God and Mary is His mother.” Updike, far from the end and friendly to redemption, if it should come, has a way of translating the threat of moral ravage into symptoms. “I tried to break out of my marriage, on behalf of another, and failed, and began to have trouble breathing.” Succeeding in the break-up, as determined people will, he writes: “My face broke out, my shoulders and neck became so encrusted I couldn’t turn my head without pain.”
He will go further, twirling, you might say, on a steel toe like a skater in the crisp New England air: “So wrapped in my skin, so watchful of its day-to-day permutations, I have little concern to spare for the homeless, the disenfranchised, the unfortunate who figure so largely in the inner passion of smooth-pelted liberals like my first wife.” “A man’s foes will be those in his own house-hold,” the Redeemer Himself opined. Smooth-pelted liberal, sardonic locution, is attached to the sufferer’s first wife, mother of four Updikes, daughter of a Unitarian clergyman. No doubt Updike regrets the homeless and the unfortunate as much as another. His distaste here is atmospheric, a distaste for the fair, blue-eyed Unitarians in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the attachment to “causes” shown by the trust-fund, rosy-cheeked descendants of the balmy vapors coming from Concord and thereabouts. For Updike, the Over-soul Unitarians, brushing away the Trinity like some dust long in a dark corner, will not do, although he had a try with the placid church before settling down more or less as a Congregationalist and their “sweet bare rites descended from the Puritans.”
The Congregationalists—a mild enough church of choice for the census-taker, not exacting or likely to be interfering or reforming in matters of conduct. It would not have been fitting to take a leap into the Roman Catholic Church where confession, forgiveness is to be followed by the intention to go and sin no more, a source of plot dilemma for Graham Greene and for the almost forgotten Christian novelist, François Mauriac. (Sartre: “God is not a novelist and neither is M. Mauriac.”) The awesome basilicas, rituals, and elaboration of Christian duties in the Roman Church, appealing to the faith hunger of many converts, would be too richly aesthetical for Updike, too denying of Middle America, the other creed embraced in these confessions.
So it was to be the Congregational Church and its pleasant meetings—or was it? Updike was born a Lutheran and there lives in him still a degree of the social conservatism of the great reformer, who opposed the Peasants War of the sixteenth century because it destabilized the state, the power of the Protestant nobles. So he shifts in the manner of the creative, leaves the Church and the site of his youth for self-definition and also, as his memoirs seem to say, to discover and to reclaim for his contribution to literature the meaning of who he was and where he was placed in the American scene.
Settling for the beauties of Massachusetts was not only a flight from Shillington but also from New York. He was happy, he tells us, in Ipswich, an old village on the North Shore of Boston with a number of quite dominating old families, a place notable for the charms of its wooden saltbox houses, the wide shores and cold water of Crane’s Beach, and, a formidable barrier to assimilation, the Myopia Hunt Club. And perhaps Ipswich is now notable for its transformation into Tarbox, the name of the town in Updike’s novel, Couples. Tar, an odorous viscous liquid, and box—well, guess. Of course, Couples is a work of fiction and Tarbox need only be a convenient address of some status, the sort of town young professional couples with children might feel a certain pride in attaching themselves to. In any case, Far-box acts in a peculiar manner upon the pulsing libidos gathered there as if for some pagan festival of nymphs and satyrs and maenads, or perhaps, closer to the bone, a remembrance of Merry Mount, carnal and gun traffic with the Indians, frontier revels around the maypole before the English puritans shipped Mr. Morton back to where he came from. Anyway, Updike was happy in the actual Ipswich—happy, except for the period, the middle 1960s, coming like some loud neighbor’s quarrel over the fence.
“On Not Being a Dove,” the most striking section of the memoirs, is a sort of regimental assault, bayonets preceding, on the peace movement occasioned by America’s fierce assault on Vietnam. It is meant to roll and rile the deracinated louts at their homefront barricades, the treasonable clerks in the literary establishment, the fashionable metropolis and its feathered dissent, the barefoot, braless flag-burners, the pious army deserters fleeing the hallowed shores for Sweden and Canada. Certainly, the inanities of the expressive side of the peace movement, the flower children, make-love-not-war, the pouring blood on this and that, off-the-pigs—on these antics anyone free from permanent brain shock might look back in embarrassment.
The protest movement, which had begun in the solemn Fiftyish pronouncements of the Port Huron Statement and the orderly civil-rights strategies, by the time of the ’67 Washington march and the ’68 convention had become a Yippieish carnival of mischievous voodoo and street theatre and, finally, a nightmare of anarchy, of window-smashing and cop-bopping and drug-tripping and shouting down.
That’s one thing and not the whole of the peace movement, as the Dance of the Seven Veils is not the whole of the Herodiade. Updike’s positions are not merely a shudder for the misdemeanors of bad taste and the heretical processions of candlelight blowing in the wind; he proposes a tangled support of the actual war in Vietnam, an implied, or rather insisted upon, duty that once in combat, there is something cheap and hollow about agitating against the elected government, taking upon oneself matters of state that because of the horrible circumstances of war require patriotism, standing together, a national, if troubled, acquiescence. That’s the way he sees it, altogether too much carrying on by the motley and mottled mob and worse by the scriveners, their wrists swollen from signing a thousand petitions. What do they know, who are they, poets and screen stars, to demand out-of-Vietnam, or for that matter, to change the scene to earlier foreign manifestations that toppled and diverted governments, to demand out-of-Suez, out-of-Algeria?
There are a number of points in his indictment, some about the nature of citizenship and others concerning the particularities of the Vietnam War.
One source of my sense of grievance against the peace movement when it came was that I hadn’t voted for any of its figures—not for Abbie Hoffman or Father Daniel Berrigan or Reverend William Sloane Coffin or Jonathan Schell or Lillian Hellman or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Jerry Rubin or Doctor Spock or Eugene McCarthy. I had voted for Lyndon Johnson, and thus had earned my American right not to make a political decision for another four years.
A peculiar idea of the franchise, considering the porousness of the mandate on this and that, the frenzied concentration in Washington at the end of the day on how “it played” on the evening news and in the polls, representing after all the raw opinion of the unqualified, on what came to the telephone operators computing the yeses and nos, what arrived in the legislative mail bag then, as always, casting a shadow over the morning DC sunlight.
Updike believes that Johnson was repudiated because he was not chic, altogether too down-home and as unmanicured as a coyote. “Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas.” Henceforth California began to run the country and, true, not one of the successors could bring a tear to the eye like the memory of the unbuckled Johnson paddling nude in the White House pool or conferring on the toilet.
The war—Updike seems to come to rest on the dubious doctrine of “credibility,” meaning the credibility of our power to sustain noncommunist allies wherever and whenever they were attacked. “Credibility must be maintained; power is a dirty business, but whoever said it wasn’t?” Whether it was prudent, given the loss of lives, the waste and vast expense, still to be paid for, to send airplane after airplane each day with bombs, napalm, agent orange, soldiers, condoms, whiskey, corn flakes and chewing gum—that’s something else, the basis for dissent even among some skeptical cautious men around Washington, along with the perception of the “unwinnable.” And for the conscientious patriot Updike, should this war be morally allowable, considering the gross inequity of destructive means between ourselves and the enemy?
Such, such were the days and a little power struggle took place at The New Yorker, a filtering down or a pushing up of conflict on West 43rd Street and Updike, an occasional political commentator, was made to give way in Notes and Comments to Jonathan Schell and “more leftish hands.”
“The world is fallen, and in a fallen world animals, men, and nations make space for themselves through a willingness to fight. Christ beat up the money-changers in the temple, and came not to bring peace, He distinctly said, but a sword.” When Christ, who famously blessed the peacemaker, spoke of not peace but a sword He had no thought of wars between nations, but induced instead the household declarations of war that would supply the troops for his crusade. (Matthew 10:34–35: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”) Certainly most of us would rather join the army, take our chances, rather than to embrace the poverty, repudiation of family and all earthly concern these troublesome early Christians were to accept as their lot.
Neither Jahweh nor Christ can be, after the biblical period, slipped into war alliances even if it is natural, in the midst of wholesale death, that the suffering should seek divine sanction for their cause. Bavarian Christian leaders in the last war seemed to have no trouble piling up sanctions with or without the aid of divinity. Updike goes far afield to find advice, even from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Therefore you must fight…. Freedom from activity is never attained by abstaining from action.” And in another obscure reference, obscure in intention at least, he thinks of men at war and of our national honor and writes: “In Sunday School, I had been much impressed by the passage where Peter denies Christ three times before the cock crows.” The disciple Peter, with his noticeable Galilean accent, divesting himself of the beleaguered Christ, saying “I know not the man” thrice—this betrayal by propinquity or rhetorical extension seems to be attached to the milling throngs of the peace movement denying Johnson and Kissinger and Nixon. Perhaps the Yippies should, like Judas in some accounts, hang themselves, as in an awful pop sense many of them did…. A slippery journey all this is. In a brilliant recent book about, among other matters, God and national policy in Victorian England up to the first World War, a young man recruited in 1914 is quoted as saying, “I’ve been a Christian all my life, but this war is a bit too serious.”*
Updike’s moral complexion is revealed with passion in his memoirs and with a high degree of almost lapidary affection for the values of his youth, the war stamps and nickels in the church collection plate, the mainstream in its decency, allegiance, and sacrifice. Along the way he scolds the “anti-establishment militants” gathered for a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, scolds Mailer and Philip Roth and even the long dead hold-outs, New England with its “haughty disavowal of the Mexican-American War”—that skirmish, or those skirmishes, in which Mexico ceded two fifths of its territory—and, being long accustomed to Texas and California, we are pleased to have it.
Updike votes for the Democrats and is one of those Americans who retain from their parents a memory of the Depression and of the inspiration of Franklin Roosevelt. That was the score back home, how it used to be. The upper-middle classes, he observes, voted Democratic out of “humanitarian largesse,” because they saw it as the party of the left-out and needy. For himself, “I was simply poor and voted Democratic out of crude self-interest.” He notes that his childhood contained the bicycles and so on beyond necessity and “when, many years later, I was recalling some of these happy circumstances in the company of my father, he interrupted me with an exclamation almost anguished, ‘Oh, no, Johnny—we were poor!’ ”
The young man from Shillington is interesting indeed and his autobiographical composition, the work of a master writer, is a document of some uniqueness in our contemporary literature, something like a desk full of stunningly local photographs preserved by accident; or it would be so if photographs had opinions. And yet, and yet, there is something droll about the picture of himself as déclassé while he wandered about Harvard, carrying with him his “humble beginnings” and his relative deprivation. With his Christianity and out-of-line distrust of the antiwar movement he places himself as an object of aesthetic distaste like Johnson in politics, and in religion a lonely swimmer “sworn to seek / If any golden harbour be for me / In seas of death and sunless gulf of Doubt.” Of course, he is the true and sweetly acceptable celebrity of art, that world of the always self-made where attitude and pose have a license as plain as that of a mosquito.
A sort of citizen self-consciousness seems to accompany him as he goes into the Sunday morning church service, there perhaps to sing the popular hymn, pleasantly negotiable for tenor and soprano, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” words actually taken from a Civil War poem by J.R. Lowell. Or to return home to the town meeting, home from the cynical caverns of New York.
I walked with my suitcase, on a winter night, up to the high school, where the town meeting was in progress. I gave my name, was checked off and admitted, and stood there in the gymnasium-auditorium in my city suit, looking into the brightly illuminated faces of my fellow citizens.
“Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position.” Dear spotted atheism, the homely, wrinkled queen of heaven for the Big Bang, mother of the depressing claims of the prehistoric upright ape and the joke of the Piltdown Man—uninteresting? For this multiplex American talent, so various, as studious as a monk and as sly as a defense attorney with certain flashing difficulties in his case, here is the equation: “Down-dirty sex and the bloody mess of war and the strenuous act of faith all belonged to a dark necessary underside of reality that I felt should not be merely ignored, or risen above, or disdained” [italics added].
Down-dirty sex—here the novelist can be seen to slip out the door of the prayer meeting and the vote on the zoning law, saying as he leaves to attend to business, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” He began with The Poorhouse Fair, a charming fable about some old men in a country home. “It’ll make a f.ing black mark in Connor’s book…,” the dialogue goes, chaste typography of the year 1959, before the libertinism of the detestable Sixties brought in the new-fangledness of typewriter fucking. Updike embraced the wide exemptions with a curious fervor and his genius began to show a concubine’s patience in the diversification of descriptions of the sexual act, not to mention the largest circus of performers. “Whoso list to hunt I know where is an hind.”
To risk the opprobrium of being against sex and conscientious candor in fiction, of withholding appreciation for the wearisome struggle with adjective, verb, and noun, the difficult rhythms of the alexandrines of copulation, brings on as much social uneasiness as not being a dove. Perhaps Couples and the cocky antics of The Witches of Eastwick are best thought of as comedies in the Restoration mode, fantasies of cuckolds, loose-girdled ladies, toffs, lecherous squires, theatrics free at last from the Round-heads. But then the triad—down-dirty sex, God, and country?
Updike himself worries the scab of the union of these three, one original with him perhaps. God knows all, and so cannot be shocked, he says. No, God is not easily shocked, but He is not one to forego wrath about the evil and adulterous generations—a problem, yes, of Updike’s own making, there’s that to be said for it. We note in the crowd of characters those most sympathetically imagined, Piet Hanema in Couples, and Rabbit Angstrom in the trilogy devoted to him, are given a sort of club hand-shake—they go to church.
Roger’s Version, a late novel, prodigiously learned in theology ancient and modern, in physics, computers, whatever is necessary. There are four main characters: Roger Lambert, a professor of theology, rather cynical, tweedy, as he goes about giving lectures on Tertullian in a place like the divinity school at Harvard; his second wife, Esther, mother of their one child; Dale, a student, a nerdish master of the computer who wishes to use its arcane possibilities to prove the existence of God; and Verna, Roger’s niece, a foul-mouthed flower child, with a child of her own, half black, whom she bangs about and injures sufficiently to be rightly accused of child-abuse at the hospital.
In the novel, Dale, with his waxy pallor and acne, will have an affair with the professor’s wife, Esther; the professor will sleep with his dreadful niece, Verna. Some justification, religious, is needed for this willful “cage of unclean beasts,” as the Puritans were thought of in Holland. Remember, the text Updike quotes tells us, that Tertullian allowed: “There’s nothing to blush for in nature. Nature should be revered.”
Nature—Esther with Dale:
He is coming. She stares at the little dark eye, the meatus uranarius, and with a stern helpfulness gives a down-ward tug at his engorged phallus…and when the first gob comes, as if in slow motion on a pornographic film, she has to have it herself…all that startling pure whiteness, ravenously nimble…and holding him firm with that hand at his kicking root, centers her cunt above his prick quickly and impales herself.
Roger meanwhile at his desk, weary of translating Tertullian’s difficult Latin, nods off to imagine, in quite pretty Kodachrome, his wife and Dale together:
I pictured a white shaft: tense, pure, with dim blue broad veins and darker thinner ones and a pink-mauve head like the head of a mushroom set by the Creator upon a swollen stem nearly as thick as itself, just the merest little lip or rounded eaves…overhanging the bluish stretched semi-epiderm where pagan foreskin once was, and a drop of transparent nectar in the little wide-awake slit of an eye at its velvety suffused tip.
Verna, in confrontation, with Uncle Roger: “Because you want to fuck me. You want to lick my cunt.” At every point in this curious, yellow novel there are asides to make way for religious imagery and longer disquisitions about the Fall and meaning of flesh, all bringing to mind those philosophical longueurs in the Marquis de Sade that interrupt the tableaux and stagy criminality. Of course, Sade despises God and Updike’s is a domestic, harmless imagination. What seems to make a remote connection between the two is the felt need for justification. When Verna and Roger are in conversation at the kitchen table and Roger instructs her in the Christian belief that “even little babies are bad,” he elaborates from the unlikely pulpit: “Augustine did. Calvin did. All the best. Christian thinkers did. You have to [believe in the badness of babies], otherwise the world isn’t truly fallen, and there’s no need for Redemption, there’s no Christian story.” (Pelagius thought Adam’s sin was his alone and we must commit our own sins. But no matter.) There is much that is dismaying and unpleasant and tiresomely perfunctory in this violent congress between the pornographic impulse and Christian doctrine. (The plastic cross, which Dale, the callow Spinoza at his computer, wears, and to which Esther, the divinity wife, gives whatever attention she has to spare at The Moment.)
If the novels, the hotter ones, need a vindication the need is not theological but aesthetic, a matter of fiction, and also a grounding in social credibility, the tread-mill of fictional truth. The actors in the drama will be a biochemist, a Radcliffe graduate, a Congregationalist minister, an amateur violinist, all turned into colliding bodies, objects, to whom inhibition, anxiety, debts, the eye of the neighbors, the practical world, the over-hanging aura of the divinity school, time itself, the bother, the bother, the boredom (“Fulfillment’s desolate attic”—Philip Larkin) are as absent as they might be with a poor catatonic, also locked in the flesh. The matings of these married, switching couples do not take place in some 1920s demimonde, or in Haight-Ashbury, but are consummated in a wondrously laid out realistic world, heightened by Updike’s intense visual imagination. Witches:
The night was moonless. The crickets stridulated their everlasting monotonous meaningful note. Car headlights swept by on Cocumscussoc Way, and the bushes by the church door, nearly stripped of leaves, sprang up sharp in the illumination like complicated mandibles and jointed feelers and legs of insects magnified. The air smelt faintly of apples making cider by themselves….
And Couples: “The blue fire, layer on layer, of swallowed starlight, was halved by a dissolving jet tail.”
In the early pages of The Great Gatsby, the lower-class mistress makes a telephone call to the Buchanan estate at the dinner hour. This small event foretells the tristesse of the entire novel, sets the compositional tone for the eye and the special sensibility of the narrator. “Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at everyone, and yet to avoid all eyes.” Saddest of all is the distant picture of the mistress at the telephone, she who literally doesn’t know where she is with Tom Buchanan and his golden Daisy, she who can have no idea.
Updike’s shimmering knowledge of the way things look, how they deface or illuminate the towns, the roads; his almost effortless command of the tradesman’s shops, the houses, cars, sports, and the speech of America, his dialogue’s wit, swiftness and deftness in placement—in all this he is unsurpassed. But the greatly pleasurable gifts hang like white, puffy clouds around the humbly repetitive Pandemonium of the relentless f.ings which do not advance the plot, being in effect beads on a string. On and on they go, fore and aft, signifying description itself, interspersed with the voyeur’s homely and infidel conversation. “Neff allowed to Alexandra that Greta [his wife] was ardent but strenuous, very slow to come but determined to do so.” In Witches one of the women has a leaking pipe in the kitchen; the plumber is called…and so. At a point in their lovemaking, she suggests an unappetizing way of getting off and the man of the people, the licensed journeyman with perhaps another leak on the intercom, says, “How about I give you a rain check on that?” Yes. Okay.
“In the beauty of the lillies, Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from many of the odd lines in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at singing of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.” An extraordinary statement, beautiful in the quotation and in the lilt of the flow of aspiration. If Updike has done as he wished, he has done so in the Rabbit trilogy—Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, and Rabbit Is Rich.
“I, who seemed to be full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole immense mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say.” True—the novelist’s glory here is saturation, the jungle density of memory, experience, and imagination. The volumes span twenty years or so and they take place in a thick vegetation, crabgrass, and rotten dandelions pushing up over the lost basketball tournaments, the car lots, the aging elders, the songs and creaking beds, bad jobs, growing and failing business of a lower-class and petit-bourgeois landscape. In these novels, it is the lived years of Harry, Rabbit as he is called, Angstrom and Janet, née Springer, that grow and grow, with their mess, their cars, their flights, their domestic vagrancy, their inchoate sense of things, the spendthrift poverty and the TV dinners and hot dogs scrounged up on an evening.
Rabbit Angstrom is created out of recalcitrant materials, the high-school basketball court and finally the Toyota distributorship in Brewer, the facts, you remember, much like those of the truck-stop minimalism in favor just now. But in Updike there are no staccato notations; it unwinds and unwinds, scene after scene, a long flow of attention and feeling. It is difficult to describe just who this young man from Brewer might be because of the subtlety of his claims on our sympathy, the peculiarities of his raw sensitivity, the naturalness of his unease, his “running,” that is, running away in the first volume.
In earlier American fiction the custom was to give a character like Rabbit, middle-western, feeling cramped in spirit, to give him a touch of the poet, some little closet of Jude-like hesitant bookishness. But Rabbit is not leaving town nor would he wish to, exactly. He runs, to get away, runs by car and sometimes walks out of his too-early marriage to Janice because, well, as he phrases it, “she’s such a mutt.” He has an inchoate sense of things “invisible” and goes to church where “the pressed suits of portly men give substance and respectability to his furtive sense of the invisible.” He feels the need to ask forgiveness for his days at the used-car lot. “You see these clunkers come in with 80,000 miles on them and the pistons so loose the oil just pours through and they get a washing and the speedometer turned back and you hear yourself saying this represents a real bargain.”
Rabbit is not a rebel against small-town hypocrisy and narrowness, the so-familiar plight. He’s got a flag decal on his car and he’s a patriot in the barroom: “Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Goddam Union if they’d just stop throwing bombs.” If he has a spiritual quest it is to a mundane transcendence: his flight to his old coach, Tothero, where he takes up with Ruth, a tired and realistic woman, available but not exactly a whore, just hanging on. He flees while Janice is back home expecting their second child and he leaves Ruth to return, leaves her pregnant after convincing her not to use the “flying saucer.”
The years of Janice and Rabbit go on and lots of coitus, sometimes amid the residue of too much Gallo and too many bologna sandwiches, for him and for her and, of course, with others. The Springers, the cabin in the Poconos, a couple-swapping trip to the Caribbean, very heavy, Rabbit’s days as chief sales representative of the Toyota franchise in Brewer. “This is a Corolla…. This particular car has four-speed synchromesh transmission, fully transistorized ignition system, power-assisted front disc brakes, vinyl reclining bucket seats, a locking gas cap.” Saturation, its reward. At the end, Rabbit is a grandfather. “Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence, hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.”
These wonderful novels are acts of conservation, a gathering of plant specimens north of the Delaware River, a rare and lasting collection of the fertilities of Updike’s genius. Along the way, his diversions, vacations perhaps, have been a sort of brilliant excess, as if thrown away; but Bech and Bech Is Back (novels) are magical travel books, the best since Evelyn Waugh. His literary criticism, Hugging the Shore and pieces following, do not hug the shore, but instead sail out in an open boat where his curiosity and great intelligence seem to sail on and on, wherever.
May 18, 1989
Derek Jarrett, The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian Age to the First World War (Harper and Row, 1989). ↩