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Rabbit Reread : Chapter & Verse : Off the Shelf : Open Book
| John Updike |
In Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, we first meet Harry in his twenties. One of the first things we learn about him is that he is a premature has-been. Once a star player on his high-school basketball team, he has married his pregnant girlfriend, Janice Springer, and is living unhappily in a cramped apartment with her and their baby son, Nelson, in the nondescript Pennsylvania town where he grew up. Janice is pregnant again. Harry finds her unattractive and can't remember why he married her in the first place. She drinks. He feels trapped. They quarrel. He runs (or rather, drives) away, first to see his old basketball coach and then to take up residence with a friendly whore named Ruth.
Though Harry, who seems not to have a good sense of direction, drives 40 miles, he finds himself only 16 miles from home. And, true enough, his life (sex and squabbling) with Ruth does not seem very different from his life (sex and squabbling) with Janice. When Harry hears that his wife is in the hospital about to give birth, he rushes to her bedside. There is a reconciliation, but it is tenuous. Despite the arrival of a healthy daughter, the couple take up their quarreling again, Harry stays away for days and nights at a time, Janice drinks too much and in a drunken haze lets the baby drown in the bathtub. Harry returns for the funeral, but on the last page of the novel, he is off again. Nobody is certain where he is going, but it is clear that it will not be far.
Rabbit, Run was a great hit when it was first published. Like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, it looked beneath the surface of post-World War II complacency and prosperity in America. It showed a lower middle class entangled in a materialist culture and in the consequences of their own petty vices, hypocrisy, and inertia. It is a very American book, not only because of its themes, but also in the nature of its popularity and its status as a product as well as a would-be mirror of the '50s. Despite the impression that might be given by a brief plot summary, few readers are likely to confuse Updike with Gogol or Zola. There is no unmitigated wrath in the Rabbit novels and not a trace of radical ideology.
Politics figure in Harry's life and in the novels, much as new song hits and automobile designs do, as markers of time, momentary items of entertainment, something to complain about, but mainly as a source of instant nostalgia. The Kennedy brothers, the civil-rights movement, landing on the moon, the Cold War, Nixon and Watergate, Jimmy Carter and the rise of oil prices, Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics-all float past in the background like pages of photographs in a special anniversary edition of Life magazine. Implicit and at the same time all too obvious is that Harry and his ilk are clueless about the big political and social forces that are raging around them and may even, to some degree, determine the course of their lives. But if Harry doesn't think politics matter very much, Updike does little to contradict him. The "system" may be corrupt and incomprehensible, but Harry's problems stem from many other sources. The gene pool seems to have hurt him more than Eisenhower or Nixon. Harry just doesn't seem too bright. Then too, his upbringing was flawed. His father was a weakling and his mother bitter, hypercritical, and undemonstrative. Furthermore, Harry seems, in the first two volumes especially, to be plain unlucky. A loser himself, he stumbles into the paths of deadbeats of both sexes even more pathetic than he is.
If reading through the Rabbit foursome often gives the odd sensation of watching Theodore Dreiser shaking hands with Norman Rockwell, it is in part because the material for a truly devastating portrait of a social system or indeed of human nature is repeatedly diverted by bathos. The treatment of the death of the Angstroms' infant daughter is a case in point. Responsibility for the baby's death shifts from person to person and cause to cause until it drifts invisibly into thin air. Neither the report of the accident nor the motley mourners at the funeral have any moral or emotional power precisely because the incident, like so much else in these novels, evaporates into literary conventions that are as vague and muddled as the moral and emotional lives of the characters. Janice let it happen because she was drunk; Janice was drunk because Harry was away all the time; Harry was away all the time because he was a weakling; Harry was a weakling because a) his father was a weakling, b) his mother didn't love him, c) his job as a demonstrator of MagiPeel Peelers in five and dime stores deprives him of his manhood, d) John Foster Dulles was paying too much attention to the Russians, et cetera, et cetera.
At each moment when these novels might have taken on a moral, political, or, most important, an emotional edge, the potential is dissipated into sentimental condescension. Harry, Janice, Ruth, Nelson, Ma Springer, the whole lot are neither victims nor agents. They are just dumb clucks, trying to get by like all the rest of us, doing the best they can with what they have, a new car when they can afford it, a hot dog and french fries while they watch the football game or a moon walk, a beer or two on Saturday night, a little (or a lot of) sex on the side.
Sex is another source of Harry's and Janice's dull fate. More an urge than a drive, more an idle pastime than a pleasure, more a habit than a passion, sex has no power to lift the characters out of their tiresome lives or to thrust them into genuinely destructive debauchery. In Rabbit Redux, the second of the series, published in 1971, Janice is having an affair with Harry's friend Charlie while Harry takes up with an 18-year-old runaway hippie named Jill. Neither Harry nor Janice has enough imagination to be truly depraved. Updike's original publishers asked him to tone down or delete some of the more explicit prose, which, he tells us in the author's introduction, has been restored in this new edition. As labored in the writing as in the actions being described, the sex scenes-which serve as a kind of refrain for the four volumes-are as erotic and appealing as the packaged baloney and old lettuce that Janice leaves in the fridge for Harry's dinner. Sometimes thinking about sex seems to be the only thing that keeps Harry going, yet when it comes down to it, anxieties about his boxer shorts, his ability to "keep it up," and his alternating lust and distaste for his various partners' pulpy flesh give new meaning to the concept of anticlimax.
Because it takes place in the '60s, Updike introduces black characters in Rabbit Redux. Harry, of course, is loaded with prejudices against blacks, Jews, Catholics, foreigners, and women. He is not as funny or outrageous as Archie Bunker, but in his dull, quiet way, he has much in common with him. When a black drugpusher named Skeeter moves into Harry's suburban nest with him and Jill and Harry's son, Nelson, there is much potential for explosive, comic, and political conflict. But, as usual, each possibility cancels out the other. Harry and Skeeter and Jill engage in long, dreary conversations about race relations. Harry tries to understand, but most of the time he reveals his stubborn bigotry. But, as always, the ironic and satiric edge is dulled by the fact that Skeeter is a caricature "black" who corresponds exactly with Harry's worst fears. He is violent and deceitful, a thief, a pusher, a pimp, an addict, and, of course, he is a sexual threat to Harry's relationship with Jill. When the house burns down with Jill in it, there is a sense of relief all around and, of course, a lingering suspicion that it was Skeeter's doing.
In the two later volumes, Harry encounters a gay Episcopalian minister and, during his winters in Florida as an older man, various Jewish golf partners. His discomfort with "queers" and Jews is pointed at and condescended to by the text, but what is truly distasteful is that the discomfort is also supported by the text. Like "black" Skeeter, the gay and Jewish characters are presented as stereotypes that do nothing to contradict Harry's prejudices. The minister "minces" and "giggles" and "flutters" and gives Tallulah Bankhead-like emphasis to certain words. The Jewish characters are loud and pushy. Since the Rabbit novels are not narrated in the first person, such characterizations cannot be exclusively located in Harry's perspective. They act and speak for themselves as Updike, not just Harry, imagines them.
Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) take Harry through middle age and into retirement and death. In the third volume, Harry and Janice are back together in a fairly comfortable truce. After the death of Janice's father, the couple have become co-owners of Springer Motors, a local Toyota agency. They have moved in with Ma Springer, Janice's widowed mother, and lead a relatively serene and prosperous life except for the carryings on of Nelson, a dropout from Kent State. Much of the narrative is taken up with the arrangements for Nelson's wedding with his pregnant girlfriend, Pru. Rabbit Is Rich ends with a Caribbean vacation during which Harry and Janice engage in spouse swapping with various unattractively sunburned neighbors on holiday with them.
In Rabbit at Rest Janice and Harry spend several months a year in their condo in Florida. Nelson has become a drug addict and Harry has developed a bad heart. This last volume is filled with Harry's awareness of physical and mental fatigue and his dim recognition that, despite modest prosperity, not much has changed in his life. World-weariness would not be the right word for what Harry experiences, since he has remained so oddly untouched by the world beyond his own tiny radius. It is almost as though the narrative is tired of itself and is beginning, at last, to run down. The process of self-acknowledged fatigue starts quite early, actually. There are lines that seem to leap out of the books and address the reader directly about what it feels like to follow Rabbit's career. In Rabbit Redux, for example: "Something has gone wrong. The ballgame is boring." Yes! Or, in the same volume, a passing comment on the terrain around Harry's housing development: "I think it's the flatness." Yes! Two passages jump out in Rabbit Is Rich. When Harry sees the corpse of his dead father-in-law, "He looked downÉand felt nothing." Right! And during a typically gross conversation among his friends, he is "appalled by this coarse crowd he's in." Who could disagree? Such lines seem to read the reader's mind. It is almost as if Updike is seeking sympathy. How did we (author and reader) get stuck with such people? And for so long?
In the end the question returns: Can interest in such a life be sustained over fifteen hundred pages? Certainly great long books have been written about the "common man." Updike mentions Joyce as an important influence. But Joyce had a higher, richer, more complex opinion of the "common man" than Updike seems to have. Harry Angstrom is no Leopold Bloom. If we try to locate Harry in the twentieth-century American literary tradition, he would fall somewhere between Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt and Forrest Gump. He is a personification of the American as untalented lowbrow that is part apology and part boast. "We may be stupid," he seems to say, "but we are survivors." Perhaps, like Babbitt and Gump, Rabbit will find a secure niche in the American hall of fictional antiheroes. But if readers are seeking a more vital, challenging, entertaining portrait of life in postwar America, they will be better served by Flannery O'Connor and Saul Bellow, Thomas Pynchon and Ralph Ellison. Each of these writers extends American realism into new and often daring directions.
On the contrary, Updike's form of realism-his fondness for cataloguing the details, the bric-a-brac of daily life-while densely authentic, is inert, without vitality or poetry. The characters never just drive a car, but a particular model Chevy or Toyota; they never just watch TV, but the Mouseketeers or M*A*S*H; they never just have fast food, they go to Taco Bell or Wendy's. At one point, Harry checks out the contents of a neighbor's medicine cabinet and, to be sure, we get the list: Parepectolin, Debrox, Chloraseptic, Cepacol, Maalox, and on and on.
But these lists, while instructive and entertaining up to a point, do not define a character or a society. They reveal a void. And in doing that, Updike's Rabbit Angstrom succeeds. But for fifteen hundred pages?? On his deathbed, Harry tries to tell Nelson something: "All I can tell you is, it isn't so bad." The narration concludes with what might be the thoughts of the father or the son or the author: "But enough. Maybe. Enough." An alternate and perhaps more accurate ending would have been: "Too much. Maybe. Too much."
Robert Kiely is Loker professor of English and American literature and Master of Adams House. He is the author of Reverse Tradition: Postmodern Fiction and the Nineteenth Century Novel and has recently edited The Good Heart, the Dalai Lama's commentary on the Christian scriptures, to be published in October.
Over the years, documentary film has become a phenomenon primarily in public television, film festivals, and foundation grants, but occasionally a feature-length documentary makes it into the theaters. A Perfect Candidate, which goes behind the scenes of the 1994 Senate race in Virginia between Oliver North and incumbent Charles Robb, is such a rarity, with June premieres scheduled in major American cities. A Perfect Candidate was produced and directed by R.J. Cutler '83 (who conceived and produced The War Room, a documentary on the 1992 Clinton campaign) and fellow documentary filmmaker David Van Taylor '83, whose work has appeared on PBS. The film's genius is to focus not on the candidates, but on backstage characters like chief North strategist Mark Goodin.
Viewing this film often feels like eavesdropping. The frankness of some of the conversations makes one marvel that professional spin doctors actually allowed the cameras to roll as they spoke. "He is Elvis," says Goodin of North, an impressively hyperbolic description even by the standards of electoral salesmanship. Later, Goodin declares that North "is the triumph of anger in politics," a remark that surprises in a different way-with its candor. In one scene, North prattles on while Goodin greedily jams a burger into his mouth and swills a beer, unintentionally upstaging his boss.
The staffers are more human than North and Robb, neither of whom seems capable of a spontaneous act. When a reporter asks Robb his position on striker replacement, the politician waffles in a way that makes Bill Clinton look like the Iron Duke. In response to a question about Iran-Contra, North tells a student group, "I didn't lie to Congress"-a startling remark coming, as it does, after footage that shows North explicitly admitting having lied to Congress. We never see the candidates discussing any issues of governance; instead, North's disreputable past and Robb's trysts with a Playboy model become key issues in a "negative" campaign.
The backstage conversations between Goodin and his colleagues reveal the manipulations of public perception that have become the warp and woof of our electoral process. The viewer can abhor the political strategists and yet empathize with them. Goodin, who initially appears to be a failed prototype for Lee Atwater, later emerges as the film's most thoughtful character. "We're all caught up in the show, in the entertainment value of politics," he muses, then adds that "Getting people elected, it's not pretty. Unfortunately it has a lot to do with dividingÉ. It's like busting a big rock: you try to chip off your piece and break the rest of it into so many smithereens that they don't matter."
A Perfect Candidate convincingly documents this dismaying aspect of elections. The movie's most chilling moment occurs during a skeet-shooting exhibition by North. The five-year-old son of a couple of the former Marine's supporters is shown wielding a rifle as big as he is. Someone asks the boy what he is going to shoot. "Clay pigeons," he replies in his tiny voice. "Clay pigeons and Democrats."
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