Ralph C. Wood’s most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 21-28, 1990, pp. 1099-1101, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Rabbit Angstrom is one of us: the average sensual man, the American Adam, the carnally minded creature whom our moralistic religion and politics cannot encompass.
Rabbit at Rest. By John Updike. Knopf, 512 pp., $21.95.
It is tempting to thank John Updike, if not also God, for relieving our misery by putting Rabbit Angstrom out of his. The final installment of Updike’s tetralogy takes Angstrom to his fated end, and it is no giveaway of the plot to say so. The novel’s only mystery is how and when Rabbit will go into the dark. But there is no surprise that our most antinomian literary hero sins his way to the grave. Rabbit has been a destroyer from the start. He has always followed the impulses of his own sweet will, letting neither God nor anyone else stanch his carnal and spiritual promptings.
Now a 55-year-old retired Toyota dealer afflicted with a failing heart, Angstrom remains a terrible hurricane of a man, one who can still flatten other people’s lives. After almost drowning his granddaughter Judy in a Florida boating mishap, Angstrom cuckolds his son Nelson and then abandons his wife, Janice. One final time, Rabbit runs. Yet nowhere does Updike censure his self-seeking, other-forsaking rogue. After all, Angstrom does no crime against life that life would not first do unto him.
There being no Christ to judge or forgive him, no community to sustain or check, no vocation to fulfill or frustrate, Rabbit faces death with all that is left: an egotheistical eroticism. When God dies, Updike believes, only sex remains alive and divine. In one of his last meditations on the meaning of it all, Angstrom declares his own unrepentantly hedonic creed: "One thing he knows is if he had to give parts of his life back the last thing he’d give back was the fucking . . A lot of this other stuff you’re supposed to be grateful for isn’t where it matters."
Why not give thanks -- with Garry Wills and a host of hostile critics -- that so dreadfully shallow a character has at last been put down? The answer, if we are honest, is close at hand. Rabbit Angstrom is one of us: the average sensual man, the American Adam, the carnally minded creature whom our moralistic religion and politics cannot encompass. Rabbit offends so many because he embodies such unpleasant truth.
As the only animal for whom sex is not a joyless act of procreation, we humans are caught in a tragic bind: our glory is also our shame; our blessing, our curse. We are animated with bodily desires that require ethical control, even as they cannot be confined within a purely ethical life. Updike seeks thus to instruct his American audience in the rudiments of carnal reality. And it is his considerable literary accomplishment to have rendered this tragic vision palpable and convincing.
For those who have followed Rabbit Angstrom’s previous peregrinations -- we can hardly call them his "progress" -- Rabbit at Rest is riveting. It lets us roam backward into the fields of Harry’s youth even as it drags us inexorably to his death. With consummate artistic skill, Updike recapitulates the major events in Rabbit’s life. In place of a clumsy exposition scene, Updike’s narrator has Rabbit recall, at surprisingly appropriate times, the myriad events, people and places that shaped his life.
The novel is as much about the past as the present. Everything current is connected to something distant. Hence Rabbit’s constant remembrance of things past: his fading stardom as a high school basketball hero in Mt. Judge, Pennsylvania; his youthful marriage to the store-clerk Janice Springer; their many sexual felicities and infidelities; the deaths that each so horribly caused in their own house; their moral enmeshment in the lives of their friends and families, especially their elderly parents and their own son Nelson; Rabbit’s jobs as a typesetter and car dealer, and now Janice’s belated career in real estate; their financial prosperity during the boom of the ‘70s when they bought vacation homes in Florida and the Poconos; now their fear of economic ruin amidst the coming Depression.
Updike is sometimes called the chronicler of our culture, the one writer historians will consult to find out what life was like in the latter half of the American century. I doubt this judgment, if only because the density of Updike’catalogs -- brand names, highway numbers, advertisement jingles, specificities of dress, localities of fauna and flora -- will require endless footnoting. Good American that he is, Updike writes for the present more than the future. It is we who have ourselves lived through these 40 tempestuous years of America history who will keep returning, to the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy. In letting .us join Rabbit’s scurrying life, Updike enables us to absorb the ethos of our time, to breathe the air of our distinctively American culture, above all to remember and so discover who we are.
Rabbit discovers that he is a man in rapid demise. He tries to face his death with a typically American determination to live for the moment. Thus we find him still skidding forward in the jumpy present-tense narration that Updike pioneered in 1960 with Rabbit, Run. Yet Angstrom is far more reflective than he was then. Rabbit not only runs; he also remembers and judges. There is an aphoristic quality to his mind. Now that his life has come full circle, he has acquired more than physical pounds; he has learned a hard-bitten wisdom as well. "Everything falling apart," Rabbit laments, "airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding, the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God."
Rabbit blames his family’s calamity on the badness of the times. Surrounded by so great a cloud of troubles, who could have done much better? Rabbit is enraged, for instance, that his son has turned out to be such a failure, a cocaine addict who has pilfered the profits from the family’s once-thriving Toyota dealership. Yet in his frenzy of accusation against Nelson, Rabbit remembers that he has hardly been a moral exemplar himself. Nelson is indeed Rabbit writ small: the son who repeats, on a lesser scale, the faults of his father: vagrancy, irresponsibility, egomania.
But just as Rabbit proves more than a mere wastrel, Nelson is revealed as more than a dopehead: he seeks and finds a cure for his drug addiction. Updike discloses the dark truth that the generations do not progress so much as stay in the same place. We do not see further than our forebears because we are not mounted on their shoulders. All the forward fury is, in fact, a way of standing still. Rabbit has his fatal heart attack at the same place where we met him three decades ago: trying one final time to win on the basketball court.
The discovery that our lives go around in a circle is the center of Updike’s tragic vision. He is our great elegist of the heartbreak that life inevitably brings: the grim news that we are finished before we have barely begun, and that our lives are but brief candles rocketed into the void. Harry voices this perception by way of an analogy to the fount of all our wisdom -- neither Scripture nor the church but television:
TV families and your own are hard to tell apart, except yours isn’t interrupted every six minutes by commercials and theirs don’t get bogged down into nothingness, a state where nothing happens, no skit, no zany visitors, no outburst on the laugh track, nothing at all but boredom and a lost feeling. . . .
His whole life seems . . . to have been unreal, or no realer than the lives on TV shows, and now it’s too late to make it real, to reach down into the earth’s iron ore and fetch up a real life for himself.
Lacking any guide outside himself, Rabbit has recourse to the only thing he knows to be real: his own sexuality. This is no mere cultural or religious limitation, as if Rabbit might have done better with a Harvard degree and an active life in the Lutheran church. What Rabbit has to rely on is all that, in Updike’s view, anyone can rely on. In Couples, his notorious novel of 1968, a character named Freddy Thorne declares Updike’s own position. Thorne says that we dwell in "one of those dark ages that visit mankind between millennia, between the death and rebirth of gods, when there is nothing to steer by but sex and stoicism and the stars."
In the absence of God, Eros and Thanatos are the only engines left to drive the human machine. The closer Harry approaches death, the more he is obsessed with his own carnality. He lies distraught in the Florida sand after being rescued from death’s double assault -- a heart attack during a boating accident where he almost killed his granddaughter. Instead of turning his mind to Last Things, Harry looks up at the spandex crotch of his daughter-in-law’s bathing suit. Alone in a North Carolina motel in final flight from his Pennsylvania family, Harry masturbates "to show himself he is still alive."
In perhaps the most chilling scene of the whole novel, Rabbit grants Thelma Harrison, his dying and lupus-ridden exmistress, one final grope at his penis. Sex, she has taught him, is the true soul food. It is the one remaining means of establishing our momentary worth, as we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the other who desires us even as we desire her or him. His high-toned critics to the contrary, Rabbit is right. We are troubled by his perpetual moral adolescence not because it is so foreign but because it is so akin to our own. Rabbit is a man of the flesh, fleshly. He can be dismissed only by moralists who believe Rabbit needs merely to do the right thing.
To say that Rabbit Angstrom is one of us is not to issue an imprimatur on his thoughts, words or deeds. And to commend Updike for making us see ourselves in this scoundrel is not to baptize him as a Christian writer. He calls Christianity his "curious hobby, firm but dusty." Like Harry himself, Updike confesses only that he cannot "not believe." God has always been present in Updike’s work chiefly through his absence, as a felt void which once was filled and which may yet be filled again. God was for Updike the God of Job and Jeremiah, the absconding God of the cross. God’s refusal to rescue the drowning baby Rebecca -- in the terrifying scenes near the end of Rabbit, Run -- is so palpable that he could be rightly accused of truancy.
But now God seems hardly to exist at all. The drug-recovered Nelson offers a godless grace before meals in the name of "Peace. Health. Sanity. Love." Harry himself can affirm only that God "is like an old friend you’ve had so long, you’ve forgotten what you liked about Him . . . the closer you get [to death] the less you think about it, like you’re in His hand already." This proves alarmingly true. In the near-fatal boat accident, Rabbit and his granddaughter tack desperately back to shore. They comfort themselves not with the assurances of faith but with the triviality of television commercials: "Coke is it," Judy sings, "the most refreshing taste around, Coke is it, the one that never lets you down, Coke is it, the biggest taste you’ve ever found."
One suspects that Updike is not merely recording our contemporary godlessness but judging it to be inevitable. Yet there are hints of another way, the way not of Rabbitic self-indulgence but of eschatological self-surrender. Angstrom himself remarks the absence of nuns at the Catholic hospital where he undergoes angioplasty:
Vocations drying up, nobody wants to be selfless any more, everybody wants their own fun. No more nuns, no more rabbis. No more good people, waiting to have their fun in the afterlife. The thing about the afterlife, it kept this life within bounds somehow, like the Russians. Now there’s just Japan, and technology, and the profit motive, and getting all you can while you can.
In his more reflective moments, Rabbit admits the sinister thing about sin: it always seems justified. Rarely do we commit overt, self-conscious acts of evil. The crooked heart always has excuses that even God will understand. Harry occasionally glimpses the truth that we are creatures far more sinning than sinned against, far more fallen than tragic. He confesses, at least once, that his plight lies not in his sorry situation but in his own "failure or refusal to love any substance than his own."
Rabbit’s confessed egomania is at its worst with women. Updike himself is often accused of being the most egregious of male chauvinists. I would argue that this is not the case. It is more to the point to say that he is an unapologetic advocate of heterosexual love. Romantic regard for members of one’s own gender is, for Updike, a terrible refusal of the other -- and perhaps also of the Other. Men and women who can love their opposites reflect the love of a God whose ways and thoughts are drastically not our own.
Yet heterosexual love has its peril, as Updike knows all too well. Rabbit candidly names it: the stream of gratitude runs more generously from women to men than from men to women. He could never love his mistress Thelma, he adds, as she loved him. He expresses a poignant exaltation in that "strange way women have, of really caring about somebody beyond themselves." Though Updike has not discerned it, there is a deep link between such womanly other-love and the selflessness of nuns and rabbis and ordinary believers in God. Scripture knows the theological root of romance as well as ethics when it declares that we love because we have first been loved.
Now that Rabbit is tragically at rest, perhaps Updike will show us a more excellent way. We will not soon forget Harry Angstrom, if only because he so realistically reflects our carnal condition. But something surprising has happened: Nelson and his wife, Pru, have been reconciled in spirit as well as flesh. Having long been aliens in bed, they are seeking to have a third child as an affirmation of their new life together. Would that Updike might make this love the start of a new, more redemptive tetralogy.