theguardian.com Thu 25 October 1990
Floating in a nimbus of greed and deceit, Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom is America's cloudy barometer (the needle always pointing to bad) and John Updike its lofty rain-maker, deluging his hero and his country in a shower of words. This disjunction Updike and Rabbit at their different work has always been one of the satisfactions of the Rabbit series: Harry, with his vulgarity, his crude simplicities, his clumsy yearning, placed and propelled by Updike's rich prose, its elastic brilliance. Rabbit is the swine before which Updike casts his pearls: beauty and the beast.
The beast, in three previous novels, has been running, returning, rich, and is now at rest. Resting, for Harry, means living in retirement with Janice in a Florida apartment, while his son Nelson runs the Toyota garage in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Rabbit is now 55, has reached the national speed limit of his life, and is vainly trying to keep his gassy 230lb bulk on the road. The direction, as it always is in Updike, is towards death. Nowadays, Rabbit's body is stabbed by strange pains, he feels 'mysteriously full in the chest, full of some pressing essence.' Death-filled thoughts come easily and frequently. 'Being alive is monstrous. Those crazy molecules' but death is still worse, and whenever death approaches, Rabbit feels an urge to eat. So he eats a lot.
In fact this book groans with food, Updike's prose lavish with every granular detail. Rabbit likes 'anything salty and easy to chew,' which means Planters peanut bars, California corn chips, Macadamia nuts, pretzels, as well as candied yams, pecan pie, Key-lime pie and vanilla Cameos.
Rabbit guzzles anything he guzzles America in fact, and Updike turns America and everything in it into a vast foodstuff, instantly and deliciously consumable. Rabbit for instance, admires the 'amazing protein perfect' of his little granddaughter's hair, and while driving past, thinks of Washington as 'the frozen heart, ice cream white, of the grand old republic.' Harry's own heart is not too good in fact. Down in Florida, he has a heart attack, and Updike typically relishes with grotesque finesse, the chance to go inside Rabbit's body, to go even further into matter, towards the very heart itself. Drugged and wired up, Rabbit hears his doctor tell Janice that 'it's the usual thing tired and stiff and full of crud. It's a typical American heart, for his age and economic status.' The heart of America, it seems, is not frozen Washington but Rabbit's frantic piece of muscle. Rabbit's heart it seems, is not really his own, but America's; an American heart.
Here is one of the threads of the Rabbit series, stretching right back to Rabbit Run: Rabbit is singularly average, and there is comedy and grimness in this. He is never truly his own master, but is owned by America. His every thought is mediated by television, by the advertisers, by averageness. His blockheaded moralism, his sexism, his endless lechery. His life, he reflects sadly, near the end of the book "seems no realer than the lives on TV shows," except that his is not interrupted every six minutes by commercial breaks. Owned by America, he is also (paradoxically) lost in it, rattling around the vast American drum: on the way to the funeral of his mistress Thelma, he and Janice lose their way and end up in a shopping mall, complete with six-theatre cinema. Lying in the hospital bed, Harry feels he has at last attained serenity, is 'at last at the still centre,' but this still centre is entirely artificial and medicinal 'the drug-induced peace inside his rib cage.'
Nelson, meanwhile, has been inducting other drugs (cocaine, some crack) and running through $200,000 of Toyota money. Harry and Janice pack him off to a rehab centre, but Toyota strips the garage of its franchise. Things are winding down. Harry, as if to throw in a last misdemeanor before his demise, sleeps with Nelson's wife Pru, his own daughter-in-law ("This is the worst thing you've ever done," Janice tells him). Unwilling to face the music when the news of this infidelity leaks out, Rabbit drives on his own from Brewer south to Florida, where he has another heart attack, and dies. Or almost. Updike's last three self-conscious words of this vast four-book series, are " . . . enough. Maybe. Enough." The end is left open and ambiguous, ripe for resurrection.
This self-consciousness is fitting. The Rabbit series has become something of a joke, an enterprise that teeters (deliberately) on the edge of parody. It is a kind of jokey balancing act: to what extent can the writer meet America on its own terms the food, the Toyota garage, the soap opera triviality of it and still produce art? Is it possible to turn the trivial into something significant, and still leave the triviality untouched, naked and for all to see? Updike's Rabbit books aim for the unremarkable density of film, and yet a film with Updike's gorgeous verbal wrappings, the miraculous openings of his prose. Harry (like Updike) finds "something tragic in matter itself, that keeps watch no matter how great our misery." Updike's prose, with its plush attention to detail, is a lament for this sad stolidness. He has a nostalgia for the present. One sentence, selected from many candidates: "A sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire." Harry imagines his grandaughter and how she sees the world with her young eyes, "every little thing vivid and sharp and new, packed full of itself like a satin valentine," but it is Updike who at 58, has the artistry of his long maturity, but still the relentless and greedy eyes of the child.