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:
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.
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.”
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.
October 25, 1990
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.” ↩
Updike, Self-Consciousness, pp. 123–124. ↩
There are wife-beating episodes in three of the four Rabbit novels. ↩