When a writer lives with and writes about a character in four books and for more than thirty years, as John Updike has done with Harry (“Rabbit”) Angstrom—central character of Rabbit at Rest and of the quartet that began with Rabbit, Run in 1960—author and character get to know each other, strengths and weaknesses, good habits and bad, like an old married couple. Like old feet easy and comfortable in an old pair of shoes. Updike and Angstrom always shared some particular things—a Pennsylvania home and a feeling for it, a fine-tuned and alert sense of perception, a heightened sensitivity to persons, places, and things that easily transcended the differences between their vocabulary and education and experience. Some of these differences . . . Angstrom was an outstanding highschool athlete, a basketball star some of whose feats have been remembered for a generation. One reads, here and there, that Updike shoots a little golf (so does Angstrom, as it happens) and both in print and by the twitching grapevine one is told that Updike is a country fair golfer. But nobody that I know of has ever yet singled out and identified John Updike as a jock. Nevertheless it needs to be said that some of the best writing in Rabbit at Rest, lively, energetic writing, concerns Angstrom shooting golf and playing basketball (in memory and in the presence); and Updike writes with equal authority and authenticity about both. If Angstrom’s feats are well-remembered, Updike has earned and enjoyed another kind of fame during the same years. Updike went to Harvard and Oxford. The less fortunate Angstrom missed out on college, but served two years in the Army. Updike was spared his generation’s military experience, gaining at least a couple of crucial career years thereby. And, inevitably, he makes less of the Army in Angstrom’s fictional life than he ought to. It is highly unlikely that it meant as little to Angstrom, in fact and in memory, as it seems to. But this is a very slight weakness and is more than compensated for by the power and capacity of Updike’s imagination first to create, then to enter into every aspect of Harry’s life and, indeed, the lives of all the others, men and women, young and old, equally who play parts in this story.
I can report that something happens to us when we start growing old and the body begins, in bits and pieces, to fail. Somehow those of us who are survivors and veterans are able to get around the shapes and configurations of different circumstances and distinct experiences and finally see each other as fellows, a judge and jury of peers. This has now happened to Updike and Angstrom. If, once upon a time, Updike was more than a little bit smirky and condescending with Angstrom and his ilk, that’s pretty much over and done with by now. There is compassion and understanding here. True, Angstrom does his share of dumb, sometimes ridiculous, occasionally even wicked and unforgivable things, adding his full share to the world’s weight of woe; still, his faults and foibles, even his sins, are those of an old friend, someone whom we wish well even as we wish that he did better by himself and others.
A plump book of more than five hundred pages, its jacket lined with the traditional purple and black of penance. Rabbit at Rest gets going, outwardly in time, in the aftermath of the explosion of the Pan Am 747 over Scotland and ends with the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. Parallel to this, first in Florida, then in fictional Brewer, Pennsylvania, and environs, then back in West Florida, Angstrom suffers a heart attack, endures angioplasty, enjoys a kind of slow suicide of forbidden consumption, especially junk food, and ends the story, after another more devastating heart attack, in intensive care and at death’s door. (If Updike wants to save him for a quintet, the last available possibility is a heart transplant.) The physicality of the story, the sense of Angstrom’s body, its hungers and aches and pains, is simply superbly realized. The outline of his inward and spiritual development, beginning in the pure cold-sweat funk of fear and trembling, and ending with acceptance and a kind of peace, is likewise overwhelming. The world beyond memory and his fingertips comes to Angstrom, as it does to most of us, by “the news,” most often delivered by means of T. V. Updike is precise in time and wonderfully accurate in his recapitulation of public events and their impact on Angstrom. These are important; for all four books were conceived of as a kind of time-capsule chronicle of the times. This is especially interesting in that Updike comes as close to living a sheltered life, a life in a cave, as any major writer of our times. The world wherein so many of his generation have been forced to live, to sink or swim, comes to his mainly as “the news.” Which is to say he and Angstrom may (maybe not) make too much of it all. He does these pieces, not set pieces, but living tableaux, very well indeed and adroitly manages to overcome the great danger of sounding like a checklist.
Use of current events as the impact on Angstrom puts Updike at risk, in this peculiar literary day and age, of being uniformly judged as “politically correct” or not by reviewers to whom politics matter more than art or truth (life). Widely reviewed. Rabbit at Rest has passed the test. As critic Jay Parini, writing in a slick magazine appropriately called Fame, argues, in defense of Updike’s work in spite of earlier lapses from grace (“his weirdly blinkered essay about the Vietnam War”), “Updike like so many writers, is smarter in his fiction than in ‘real’ life.” Continuing, Parini welcomes Updike back to the fold: “As Rabbit Angstrom, in late middle age, is forced to deal with, for instance, his son’s gay friend, Lyle, who has AIDS; with his son’s addiction to drugs; with the general filthy mess that America, through greed and benign neglect, has become; one senses his growing political (and, of course, spiritual) awareness of things.” I am happy to be able to report that Updike is a lot better writer than Parini and others credit him with being, and that Updike’s elegiac portrait of America, seen and experienced by Angstrom, is a lot more solid and subtle than Parini’s view of it. He and Angstrom both are too intelligent and decent to equate virtue with intelligence and the spiritual with the “politically correct.”
This is a fine, rich, powerfully imagined novel, abundant in its details, ample in its rewards.
[Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 518 pp., $21.95]
Leave a Reply