“[A] fearsome bulk with eyes that see and hands that grab and teeth that bite, a body eating enough at one meal to feed three Ethiopians for a day, a shameless consumer of gasoline, electricity, newspapers, hydrocarbons, carbohydrates. A boss, in a shiny suit. His recent heart troubles have become, like his painfully and expensively crowned back teeth, part of his respectability’s full-blown equipage.”
Rabbit ran, Rabbit returned, Rabbit became rich, now here, in 1989, Rabbit would like to believe that he is at rest. But he isn’t; not for long, anyway. Rabbit is once again running, and, once again, he doesn’t know where he’s running to or what he’ll doing upon his arrival. But he’s running.
I have just finished up the concluding novel of John Updike’s “Rabbit Angstrom” tetrology, Rabbit at Rest, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. While reading the third installment, Rabbit Is Rich (which also won the Pulitzer), I was absolutely dreading reading this book; spending even more time with the despicable Harry Angstrom and experiencing even more of his awful and empty life was the last thing I wanted to do. I hated Rabbit Is Rich and I was dead certain that I was going to hate Rabbit at Rest.
I wasn’t surprised to find, while reading this book, that Harry Angstrom is still awful, that he’s still a sociopathic asshole, that he’s still sexist, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, that he’s still absolutely obsessed with sex; I wasn’t surprised that his son, Nelson, is still a bratty, whiny, self-involved loser; I wasn’t surprised that his wife, Janice, is still naive. I wasn’t surprised by any of the content of this book.
I was surprised, however, that I enjoyed the book.
There is nothing redeemable about the character of Harry Angstrom. Of all the characters I have come across along this journey, he is absolutely the most deplorable; not one ounce of good in his entirety. I must confess, though, his death brought a certain amount of bittersweetness along with it. The book, of course, isn’t without its flaws—it has plenty of those: the story seems forced in some places (Rabbit having sex with his daughter in law), a little too obvious in others (Judy’s nearly drowning brings the drowning of his daughter from the first book full-circle), the writing is a little heavy-handed at times, a little ham-handed at others (the Japanese Toyota salesman, the Uncle Sam scene), and the novel concludes with a gaping plot hole that’s never resolved; but, despite its ugliness, despite its vulgarity, there was a charming, brutal sort of honesty to Rabbit’s story.
Updike, though, somehow managed to balance a very thin line in writing the Rabbit character, and in so doing, he shows that sympathy and disgust for a character need not be mutually exclusive; that one feeling doesn’t preclude the other.
The thing about this series (the last two books of it, at least) that I don’t think I really got until I finished this one, is that I don’t think Updike wrote Rabbit as a hero, or even a tragic hero; and I don’t think he even takes any joy in writing Rabbit’s biography. Instead, I think Updike wrote a manual on how not to live life; a warning guide. While there was a charming sort of honesty to this story, there’s also a great exaggeration to it—particularly in this fourth part of the series. Rabbit is an awful person, but he’s also the worst sort of awful person; all of his shortcomings are amplified, turned up to 11.
Furthermore, Updike’s larger intention with this whole series was to depict the state of American affairs, using Rabbit as a barometer, as he and his country float in stormy rain cloud of lust, deceit, greed, despair, gluttony, depression, pessimism, bigotry, sexism, self-sabotage, depravity, nihilism, and consumerism. Rabbit and America are both rudderless, and are both bound for destruction. Rabbit’s heart—destroyed by years of abuse and overuse—is really the heart of America. Rabbit is America (which, to return to my point about the ham-handedness of the writing in some places, renders Rabbit, dressed up as Uncle Sam and clumsily wobbling on stilts a scene of wonky, transparent symbolism). At the young age of 56 or 57, Rabbit is already a crusty, decrepit old man that is always seconds away from the grave, has vastly overreached into the lives of those around him, and his hellbent on dragging everybody to their destruction with him—a perfect metaphor for one of the world’s youngest countries.