The thought did occur during the Eighties that it wouldn’t do to leave Rabbit Angstrom – Toyota dealer, wife-swapper, gone-to-seed athlete, conservative, citizen of Brewer, Pennsylvania, ex-working man, Scandinavian American and emblematic mess – just where he was after a mere three books. Indeed, although Rabbit, at the end of what is now a tetralogy, looks sick to the terminal rim, I would hesitate to take bets that resurrection is ruled out.
Thirty years ago John Updike gave us in Rabbit Run Harold ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, the basketball-player lately wed to tippling slatternly Janice Springer, who failed to cope. When baby Becky drowns through the negligence of Janice, Rabbit runs away. In Rabbit Redux, the title elegantly lifted from Trollope, Rabbit hits the Sixties, begets or does not beget a child on Ruth, loses Janice temporarily to Charlie Stavros, ultimately his most reliable friend, strikes up with crazy Jill and crazier black Skeeter and literally walks through fire.
Rabbit is rich (1980) is the account of a Rabbit made comfortable when a long-reconciled Janice inherits her father Fred’s motor dealership, which he has enriched with a Toyota agency. Rabbit speculates, at the height of inflation, in Krugerrands, makes love on a pile of them and sells in time, tries for one girl but, in a rich man’s yachting swop, draws another, Thelma Harrison, who, unnervingly, loves him.
That brings us to the start of Rabbit at Rest and represents the barest narrative bones. Sex plus money, plus a slick of current events, plus the small-town scene: the casual impulse may be to expect the least – a soap, a saga, a good thick book for the airport lobby, a comfortable fuck-flecked yardage of domestic aggravation. Nothing could be more systematically wrong.
It is the genius of Updike that he can take a weak popular medium and invest it with his own delicate understanding. The tenderness of Updike allows complexities to bloom. Harry is supposed to be a conservative, and indeed he will vote for Reagan. But he has little of the hardness, indifference or aggression of many conservatives. He is curious and without contempt, capable of learning new things and people, oddly tolerant of blacks and gays, an admirer of the Jews. His prejudices incline towards the past: he is a laudator temporis acti, a melancholy conservative rather than a sour or combative one. Long ago and here in Britain a radio interviewer observed to Updike that Rabbit Angstrom was broadly a low odious redneck. The author quizzically dissented. He liked Harry. Although not obviously political, Updike was saying (in 1971, the era of Vietnam, the Nixon Presidency and much lightweight anti-Americanism) that he was essentially happy with America.
Harry is a bundle of appetites and relationships, given to taking what he wants, yet imbued with old loyalties: to his own townships – Brewer, Mount Judge and Penn Park – the way they had been, to the women he has slept with, to the houses he has lived in, to Baby Becky and, not at all self-pityingly, to his old, slowly hazing-out disappearing self. For all his appetites and misdemeanours, Harry is understandable and, if understood, forgivable. He is a lens or prism, a middling man who serves his creator by perceiving and assessing, without quite judging, the United States. In Rabbit is rich, he rails against the A-rabs who with their oil price hike have struck at the automobile tradition, at the games of chicken in which two petrol-devourers would have run at each other head-on. He laments the loss (yesterday) of good, old, no-tomorrow, spend-and-throw-away America.
In Rabbit at Rest, older, sadder, what we call mellow, he mildly regrets the passing of US power and is misunderstood to speak of himself. He is talking to a woman sales representative, new, assured – unthinkable to his generation, leave alone to Fred Springer, whose car lot this had been.
‘Do you ever get the feeling,’ he asks her, ‘now that Bush is in, that we’re kind of on the sidelines, that we’re like a big Canada, and that what we do doesn’t much matter to anybody else? Maybe that’s the way it ought to be. It’s a kind of relief, I guess, not to be the big cheese.’
Elvira has decided to be amused ... ‘You matter to everybody, Harry, if that’s what you’re hinting at’.
He insists that he was not talking about himself but about the country. But then, handy-dandy, which is Rabbit Angstrom, which the USA?
Symbolism isn’t what it was, thank God, not, at least, in the self-conscious attitudinising French way – and Updike, after all, is a relaxed, storytelling naturalist. But one never quite escapes from the idea of Angstrom as intended emblem of the States. Updike is usually too shrewd to spell this out: he has, after all, been the victim of one PhD mind which read into Harry’s serviceable Swedish surname (minus its umlaut), the angst upon which young academics new to the scholarly meadow delight to nibble. But there is a passage late in the present volume where Harry, to please his granddaughter Judy and her guide troop, dresses for the Fourth of July parade in the full costume of Uncle Sam, with defective goatee, star-spattered waistcoat and striped, flared top hat. It is a crude notion for Updike, an uncharacteristic piece of underlining, but it gives the symbolic school of Angstrom studies all the footnotes it needs. And if Rabbit Angstrom isn’t symbolic, he is jolly representative, a walking emporium of American fits and starts. The fecklessness of fleeing Harry in the late Fifties, Harry-meets-the-youth-revolt in the Sixties, his son Nelson attending Kent State University, Ohio, where the National Guard once opened fire, Angstrom making it and effecting entry across class lines into the Flying Eagle Country Club: all these events are heavy-scented with what bullying activists call relevance – political and social relevance (in the given time-snapshot of each book) to the doings of the whole country.
And so much about Harry is echt American: the consumerism (he avidly reads Which and Consumer Reports), the hurry and the shortcut-taking, the fascination with statistics (Toyota sales or baseball hits), even the preoccupied little runs at lust. Rabbit at Rest highlights Harry’s very American self-indulgence – a diagnosed heart-case wolfing Munchies. Appetite is never far from centre-stage. More of the verbal palette goes into descriptions of glutinous delight – of eating a macadamia nut or a corn crisps – than into the perfunctory litany of sexual congress.
Harry is also an American for our time in that his values shift as he comes to live uneasily with the country’s didactic hedonism. One particular instance will give Updike most trouble as Rabbit at Rest comes to be reviewed. The author has a large element of intelligent social conservatism, and his account of the homosexual Lyle, Nelson’s accountant – indifferent, rapacious, doomed by Aids, and annihilatory of poor Nelson, Harry’s son and truly a rabbit – will, on my guess, turn upon Updike that most American of things, the special-interest pressure group, with its gift for orchestrated anathema and insistence on a correct line.
Rabbit at Rest depicts a slowed-down Rabbit (Rabbit in a Florida condominium, for heaven’s sake) quietly destroying himself by an inert life-pattern and too many fats in his diet. It shows the wretched Nelson, weak, clamorous, wrecker of an expensive car in the previous volume, stealing money (by accounting devices discovered for him by HIV-positive Lyle) to pay for Lyle’s medication and his own addiction to the drug alloy, crack. If there is analogy in this book, Updike’s feelings about present generation USA must be etched in ice.
Harry and Janice are coping in semi-retirement with a Florida observed by Updike with a beautifully phrased, unsnobbish dismissiveness – the State Tourist Board will be roasting his image at Statewide clambakes. Nelson and his wife Pru visit with their two children. Pru is tight-mouthed and careful, Nelson fazed, irked and erratic, not quite holding the wheel. A sail-board trip involving Harry and the granddaughter who echoes dead Becky, a watermark in this text, ends with a spill. Judy is saved from Becky’s fate but at the cost of Harry’s having a heart attack on the beach – the occasion of long, detailed hospital and operating-theatre copy. Return to Pennsylvania brings desultory re-acquaintance with characters from his past: Charlie Stavros, himself heart-bypassed, coolly sidelining life but still good for sense and solid advice; Thelma Harrison, who loves him and dies by swift degrees; Ronnie Harrison spitting hatred for Rabbit at her graveside. There are also the great inanimates of this chronicle: Fred Springer’s Barcalounger, the Chuck Wagon Café (big in an earlier book, now a Pizza Express), the old Springer house, the Norway maples of the street and, of course, the car lot.
The Angstroms have learned from Pru that Nelson is on crack; they learn by degrees that he and Lyle have systematically robbed the business and Toyota. Janice, long limply obdurate, begins to pull herself together in crisis; Nelson goes to rehabilitation and comes back with the secular piety Americans use as a substitute for religion; the Japanese, with all the courtly grace of a ship’s flogging, delete Springer Motors from their agency. Harry, angiplasted, ignores his diet, has intercourse with his daughter-in-law, is again estranged from Janice, makes a final flight from Pennsylvania to Florida (Rabbit’s last run), plays a casual (and quite crazy) street game of ball before suffering a massive infarction – he has been with a black youth, Tiger, who, echoing Rabbit Mark One, runs away. Harry is brought to hospital where we suppose he will die. Americans might prefer none of this to be symbolic.
When Mr Shimada of Toyota Head Office, Torrence, California, delivers his sentence, he makes some ferocious observations:
In United States is fascinating for me, struggle between order and freedom. Everybody mention freedom all papers terevision anchor people everybody. Much rove and talk of freedom. Skateboarders want freedom to use beach board-walks and knock down poor old people. Brack men with radios want freedom to self-express and make super-jumbo noise. Men want freedom to have guns and shoot others on freeways in random sport. In California dog shit much surprises me. Everywhere dog shit dogs must have important freedom to shit everywhere.
With a flash of wide white cuff, he taps the page of figures on Harry’s desk.
Too much disorder. Too much dog shit. Pay by end of August, no prosecution for criminal activities. But no more Toyota franchise at Singer Motors.
Japanese perplexity awakening to contempt dismisses Harry, effectively dismisses the United States. This passage, with its burden of foreign diction so liable to be farcical, is not on the plane of brilliant writing which again and again illuminates Rabbit at Rest. But it is a level judgment on American society. ‘Freedom to self-express and make super-jumbo noise’.
The direction of this book is quite close to Kipling, the Kipling of ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’. The burned hand has come wambling back to the fire. Interestingly, the tolerance the author held out to semi-stoic Harry is not available to Nelson, chief wambler. Even though Harry’s fatty appetites will kill him, and though those compulsive nibblings are cognate with Nelson’s horrendous addiction, he retains Updike’s pained sympathy. ‘Daddy has a lot of little pipes and things,’ says the innocent granddaughter. Nelson is a whiner, a shifter of responsibility, a rationaliser away of fault and consequence. Harry can only destroy himself: a wider spectrum is vulnerable to his opiate-fuelled son. The debts accumulated by addiction and embezzlement threaten mother, wife and children. When Mann delimited the feeble cobweb spirit of Hanno Buddenbrook, he was striking up as artist against the artistic spirit and its frailty, and praising good North German Protestant drawers of bills of lading. Updike here suggests a general rottenness, a going to the dogs which is not intelligently to be dismissed. He is speaking to America, and beyond, as wry, sophisticated, ironical blimp. It is doubtful if the good humour Mr Updike felt for his country in more tumultuous times any longer holds. Too sceptical to make anything as crass as an indictment, he has nevertheless delivered a true bill, and it is a bill of mortality.
This grave purpose alone, never mind the art of the writing, should wipe out jibes about soap opera. To make a comparison with another long, many-volumed family chronicle, we should try Updike against Galsworthy, not a fashionable but a proper and observant writer. The flaw in The Forsyte Saga lies in Galsworthy’s softness. Notoriously, he came to scoff and remained to take tea. The satire of A Man of Property and In Chancery became the near-celebration of later books, and the wimpish immunity from real pain and consequence of the later generation of Fleurs and Michael Mounts let the Saga fade and decline until, like the King Emperor, it slowly sank.
Updike began with affection, and he never loses tolerance – the fat Harry of Rest is kin to the slender Harry of Run – but the Angstroms, far from ensucring the palate as the books develop, become ashes in the mouth. A tender god to his characters, Updike is yet ready to chastise them and make a historical point to slobbish, devouring, air-rotting Western man.
The writing has that fish-in-water faculty of being able to do anything. Unlike Saul Bellow, with his epigrams and mandarin manner, Updike can be high or demotic as mood or requirement takes him. It gives him the power to devastate, as here on Reagan and Bush: ‘at least he was dignified, and had that dream distance; the powerful thing about him as President was that you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything, he was like God that way, you had to do a lot of it yourself. With this new one you know he knows something, but it seems a small something.’ That surely is the last word on the last two Presidencies. Then there is Harry on history, which he reads a little: ‘It has always vaguely interested him, that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves, the fragile, brown, rotting layers of previous deaths, layers that if deep enough and squeezed hard enough make coal as in Pennsylvania.’
Updike is an unconceited writer who makes grave things accessible. The work achieves a certain grandeur: it makes a perambulation of the walls of a stricken city. It represents the superb conclusion of a historic labour of writing, a roman fleuve undertaken in the age of river-pollution. There is no living writer I would as quickly hasten to read.