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October 18, 2017

Updike's Long-Run Rabbits

On this day in 1932 John Updike was born. In a writing career of almost fifty years and as many books, Updike's five Rabbit novels (counting the 2000 novella, Rabbit Remembered) stand out as a bell tolling, at decade intervals, for Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and America. If Harry is often a fool and his country is often a mess, all is given such "incandescent allure," as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, that the saga stands as Updike's "surpassingly eloquent valentine to his country, as viewed from the unique perspective of a corner of Pennsylvania."

That corner is Reading, Pa., where Updike was born, and nearby Shillington, where he lived until thirteen -- the fictional "Brewer" and "Olinger." In "Self-Consciousness," his 1989 memoir, Updike describes himself as a writer "who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say ... some terrible pressure of American disappointment, that would take a lifetime to sort out, particularize, and extol with the proper dark beauty." Not anticipating a series, he began Rabbit, Run in 1959 looking for a story to be paired with The Centaur as "a biune study of complimentary moral types: the rabbit and the horse, the zigzagging creature of impulse and the plodding heart of stoic duty." But it was clear from the start that there was mileage in the Rabbit:
    As I sat at a little upright desk in a small corner room of the first house I owned, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, writing in soft pencil, the present-tense sentences accumulated and acquired momentum. It was a seventeenth-century house with a soft pine floor, and my kicking feet, during those excited months of composition, wore two bare spots in the varnish.
What makes Harry run is never clear to him, and he arrives nowhere long-lasting or good enough. Things left begin with the MagiPeel Peeler Company and include, more than once, the wife and kids. Things wondered at include women -- "that strange way women have, of really caring about somebody beyond themselves" -- and, at the end of Rabbit is Rich, his granddaughter:
    Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything, but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.
America, too, rolls on, the only thing big or resilient enough to match Rabbit's ego. Near the end of Rabbit at Rest, believing that even Florida is better than Pennsylvania now that the family knows he has slept with his daughter-in-law, Harry runs for the last time. On the road, "floating like misplaced boats, are big white campers and vans, Winnebagos and Starcrafts, Pathfinders and Dolphins." He sees "Colorado's green mountain profile and Maine's gesturing red lobster" and then "a new kind of Florida license plate":
    ...a kind of misty tricolor memorial to the Challenger, among the many still with the green Florida-shaped stain in the middle like something spilled on a necktie. And wasn't that the disgrace of the decade, sending that poor New Hampshire schoolteacher and that frizzy-haired Jewish girl, not to mention the men, one of them black and another Oriental, all like some Hollywood cross-section of America, up to be blown into bits on television a minute later?
Though helpless with his knowledge, Rabbit knows there is more than television: "On the evening news half the commercials are for laxatives and the other half for hemorrhoid medicine, as if only assholes watch the news." He tries to read history, as he tries to stay in one place, and to feel guilt, and to find God in the perfect golf shot. Updike may be right to say that Rabbit is "spiritually minded"; Rabbit's son might be right to say that his father is "such a fool he really believes there is a God he is the apple of the eye of." Whatever the afterlife for Rabbit, Rabbit at Rest was reviewed by Jonathan Raban as "one of the very few modern novels in English (Bellow's Herzog is another) that one can set beside the work of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Joyce and not feel the draft."

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