by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Times Book Review, Sept. 30,1990. Reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going.
With this elegiac volume, John Updike's much-acclaimed and, in retrospect, hugely ambitious Rabbit quartet—Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and now Rabbit at Rest—comes to an end. The final word of so many thousands is Rabbit's, and it is, singularly, "Enough." This is, in its context, in an intensive cardiac care unit in a Florida hospital, a judgment both blunt and touchingly modest, valedictory and yet enigmatic. As Rabbit's doctor has informed his wife, "Sometimes it's time." But in the nightmare efficiency of late 20th-century medical technology, in which mere vegetative existence may be defined as life, we are no longer granted such certainty.
Rabbit at Rest is certainly the most brooding, the most demanding, the most concentrated of John Updike's longer novels. Its courageous theme—the blossoming and fruition of the seed of death we all carry inside us—is struck in the first sentence, as Harry Angstrom, Rabbit, now 55 years old, more than 40 pounds overweight, waits for the plane that is bringing his son, Nelson, and Nelson's family to visit him and his wife in their semiretirement in Florida: he senses that it is his own death arriving, "shaped vaguely like an airplane." We are in the final year of Ronald Reagan's anesthetized rule—"Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years . . . of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God."
This early note, so emphatically struck, reverberates through the length of the novel and invests its domestic-crisis story with an unusual pathos. For where in previous novels, most famously in Couples (1968), John Updike explored the human body as Eros, he now explores the body, in yet more detail, as Thanatos. One begins virtually to share, with the doomed Harry Angstrom, a panicky sense of the body's terrible finitude, and of its place in a world of other, competing bodies: "You fill a slot for a time and then move out; that's the decent thing to do: make room."
Schopenhauer's definition of walking as "arrested falling" comes to mind as one navigates Rabbit's downward plunge. There is an angioplasty episode, recounted in John Updike's typically meticulous prose, that is likely to be quite a challenge for the hypochondriacs and physical cowards among us. (I'm not sure I met the challenge—I shut my eyes a few times.) There are candid and un-self-pitying anecdotes of open-heart surgery. We come to know how it probably feels to suffer not one heart attack but two, how it feels to strain one's "frail heart" by unconsciously (that is, deliberately) abusing one's flabby body.
A good deal is made, in the Florida scenes, of the American retired elderly. Rabbit thinks, with typical Rabbit crudeness, "You wonder if we haven't gone overboard in catering to cripples." A former mistress of Rabbit's named Thelma (see Rabbit Is Rich) reappears in these pages as a lupus sufferer, soon to die, not very gallantly described, when they kiss, as smelling faintly of urine. There is an AIDS patient who exploits his disease as a way of eluding professional responsibility, and there is a cocaine addict—Rabbit's own son, Nelson—whose dependence on the drug is pushing him toward mental breakdown.
The engine that drives the plot in John Updike's work is nearly always domestic. Men and women who might be called ordinary Americans of their time and place are granted an almost incandescent allure by the mysteries they present to one another: Janice Angstrom to Harry, in Rabbit Redux, as an unrepentant adulteress; a young woman to Harry, as possibly his illegitimate daughter, in Rabbit Is Rich; and now Nelson to Harry, as his so strangely behaving son, whose involvement with drugs brings the family to the edge of financial and personal ruin. Thus, though characters like Janice, Nelson and, from time to time, Rabbit himself are not very sympathetic—and, indeed, are intended by their resolutely unsentimental creator not to be—one is always curious to know their immediate fates.
John Updike's choice of Rabbit Angstrom, in Rabbit, Run, was inspired, one of those happy, instinctive accidents that so often shape a literary career. For Rabbit, though a contemporary of the young writer—born, like him, in the early 1930's, and a product, so to speak, of the same world (the area around Reading, Pa.)—was a "beautiful brainless guy" whose career (as a high school basketball star in a provincial setting) peaked at age 18; in his own wife's view, he was, before their early, hasty marriage, "already drifting downhill." Needless to say, poor Rabbit is the very antithesis of the enormously promising president of the class of 1950 at Shillington High School, the young man who went to Harvard on a scholarship, moved away from his hometown forever and became a world-renowned writer. This combination of cousinly propinquity and temperamental diamagnetism has allowed John Updike a magisterial distance in both dramatizing Rabbit's life and dissecting him in the process. One thinks of Flaubert and his doomed fantasist Emma Bovary, for John Updike with his precision's prose and his intimately attentive yet cold eye is a master, like Flaubert, of mesmerizing us with his narrative voice even as he might repel us with the vanities of human desire his scalpel exposes.
Harry Angstrom, who tries to sate his sense of life's emptiness by devouring junk food—"the tang of poison that he likes"—the very archetype of the American macho male (whose fantasies dwell not, like Emma Bovary's, on romance, but on sports), appears as Uncle Sam in a Fourth of July parade in Rabbit at Rest, and the impersonation is a locally popular one. Rabbit, who knows little of any culture but his own, and that a culture severely circumscribed by television, is passionately convinced that "all in all this is the happiest . . . country the world has ever seen." As in Rabbit Redux he was solidly in favor of the Vietnam War, so, as his life becomes increasingly marginal to the United States of his time, in ironic balance to his wife's increasing involvement, he is as unthinkingly patriotic as ever—"a typical good-hearted imperialist racist," as his wife's lover put it in the earlier book.
Rabbit is not often good-hearted, however, living as he does so much inside his own skin. Surprised by his lover's concern for him, he thinks, funnily, of "that strange way women have, of really caring about somebody beyond themselves." From Rabbit, Run to Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit's wife, Janice, is repeatedly referred to as "that mutt" and "that poor dumb mutt," though she seems to us easily Rabbit's intellectual equal.
In Rabbit at Rest, an extreme of sorts, even for Rabbit, is achieved when, at Thelma's very funeral, he tells the dead woman's grieving husband that "she was a fantastic lay." Near the end of the novel, it is suggested that Rabbit's misogyny was caused by his mother! (Of course. Perhaps women should refrain from childbirth in order to prevent adversely influencing their sons?) It is a measure of John Updike's prescience in creating Rabbit Angstrom 30 years ago that, in the concluding pages of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit's ill-treated lover Ruth should speak of him in disgust as "Mr. Death." If Mr. Death is also, and enthusiastically, Uncle Sam, then the Rabbit quartet constitutes a powerful critique of America.