For years I’ve had a copy of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest sitting on the small bookshelf of our boat, where we have spent a part of the summer for each of the last eighteen years. Each stay grows a little shorter as we age. Perhaps that is because the boat seems to get smaller but the truth is it’s just more difficult. Boating demands strength and agility and a touch of fearlessness, all of which we had in abundance when we first started to boat on the Long Island Sound almost forty years ago, visiting most ports from Norwalk, CT to Nantucket, with yearly stopovers at Block Island. Our stays now are mostly at the home port dock, but fortunately we are far out into the Norwalk River so it’s almost like being at a quiet mooring, with just more creature comforts when needed, like air conditioning. But occasionally we go out to the Norwalk Islands where we still have a mooring, especially on a fine day like this, leaving our home port…
I’m not sure why I kept this duplicate copy of what I consider to be Updike’s finest novel, Rabbit at Rest, on the boat, but now I know, having picked it up again. I’m steeped in nostalgia. When I first read it I felt I was looking into my future. Now I'm looking into my past. No one is a better social historian than Updike, the novelist. I miss him so much.
Simply put, Updike peers into the abyss of death in this novel. It hangs heavily in some way on every page and having gone through some of the same experiences with angioplasties and more, I closely identify. He’s now a snowbird in this novel, 6 months in Florida and 6 months in his familiar Pennsylvania environs. Rabbit (Harry Angstrom) has let himself go, however. His little exercise is golfing but even that goes by the wayside. On the other hand he is addicted to fast food, salt, you name the poison. “Harry remorsefully feels the bulk, 230 pounds the kindest scales say, that has enwrapped him at the age of 55 like a set of blankets the decades have brought one by one. His doctor down here keeps telling him to cut out the beer and munchies and each night…he vows to but in the sunshine of the next day he’s hungry again, for anything salty and easy to chew. What did his old basketball couch…tell him toward the end of his life, about how when you get old you eat and eat and it’s never the right food? Sometimes Rabbit’s spirit feels as if it might faint from lugging all this body around.”
This last sentence really gets to the heart of the novel. It makes me wonder whether Updike was unconsciously elaborating on the great Delmore Schwartz poem, The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, especially the lines:
Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
With that as the essential theme, nothing escapes the granular examination of Updike the social historian, the sterility of Florida life, the inherent difficulty of the father – son relationship (poor Nelson becomes hooked on drugs, always having to live in the larger than life shadow of his father, and leads the family into financial crisis), the political back drop of the time – Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the cupidity of corporate America, driving real industry overseas and becoming a nation of financial engineering. In fact, so much of the novel stands up to today’s world and one can see the foreshadowing of the Age of Trump. There is even a swipe at Trump on the front page of Rabbit’s local Florida paper of the late 80s, a picture of Trump with the headline (Male call: the year’s hottest). One would have to wonder what Updiike would have written with the last few years as political fodder.
Rabbit maintains a little garden at his house in Pennsylvania, but he’s also planted the seeds of what his family has become, his wife Janice yearning for a life of her own as a real estate broker, his son Nelson running their car dealership into the ground with debts to finance his cocaine habit, his daughter in law, Pru, hanging onto a loveless marriage, his two grandchildren looking to their grandpa for love and guidance, and Rabbit like a deer caught in the headlights. “Family life with children, is something out of his past, that he has not been sorry to leave behind; it was for him like a bush in some neglected corner of the back yard that gets overgrown, a lilac bush or privet some bindweed has invade from underneath with leaves so similar and tendrils so tightly entwining it gives the gardener a headache in the sun to try to separate bad growth from good. Anyway he basically had but the one child, Nelson, one lousy child.”
But that is not the only thing that is entwined, being strangled; it’s his heart and the American soul. “As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart” “With [his golf partners], he’s a big Swede, they call him Angstrom, a comical pet gentile, a big pale uncircumcised hunk of the American dream.” And when he finally has a heart attack on a Gulf of Mexico beach, “he lay helpless and jellyfishlike under a sky of red, of being in the hands of others, of being the blind, pained, focal point of a world of concern and expertise, at some depth was a coming back home, after a life of ill-advised journeying. Sinking, he perceived the world around him as gaseous and rising, the grave and affectionate faces of paramedics and doctors and nurses released by his emergency like a cloud of holiday balloons.”
He has an angioplasty when he should have had a bypass, but he doesn’t want anything done in Florida instead returning to his home soil of Pennsylvania. “Harry always forgets, what is so hard to picture in flat Florida, the speckled busyness, the antic jammed architecture, the distant blue hilliness forcing in the foreground the gabled houses to climb and cling on the high sides of streets, the spiky retaining walls and sharp slopes….” But home there are problems, family problems, money problems, leading to marital discord, and Rabbit on the run again, but to where, to Florida, bringing his compromised heart, and his focus more and more on death. “It has always…interested him, that sinister mulch of facts our little lives grow out of before joining the mulch themselves…”
And yet, on the lonely drive down I95, one that I’ve done scores of times myself, Updike’s penchant for social commentary and his ear for dialogue dominates. Nearing the Florida border Rabbit turns to a man one empty stool away from the counter of a rest stop restaurant, asking:
“’About how many more hours is it to the Florida line?’ He lets his Pennsylvania accent drag a little extra, hoping to pass.
‘Four’ the man answers with a smile. ‘I just came from there. Where you headin’ for in Florida?’
‘Way the other end. Deleon. My wife and I have a condo there, I’m driving down alone, she’ll be following later.’
The man keeps smiling, smiling and chewing. ‘I know Deleon. Nice old town.’
Rabbit has never noticed much that is old about it. ‘From our balcony we used to have a look at the sea but they built it up.’
‘Lot of building on the Gulf side now, the Atlantic side pretty well full. Began my day in Sarasota.’
‘Really? That’s a long way to come.’
‘That’s why I’m makin’ such a pig of myself. Hadn’t eaten more than a candy bar since five o’clock this morning. After a while you got to stop, you begin to see things.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘The stretch I just came over, lot of patchy ground fog, it gets to you. Just coffee gets to your stomach.’ This man has a truly nice way of smiling and chewing and talking all at once. His mouth is wide but lipless, like a Muppet’s He has set his truck driver’s cap, with a bill and a mesh panel in the back, beside his plate; his good head of gray hair, slightly wavy like a rich man’s is permanently dented by the edge of the cap.
‘You driving one of those big trucks? I don’t know how you guys do it. How far you goin’?’
All the salad on the plate has vanished and the smile has broadened, ‘Boston.’
‘Boston! All the way?’ Rabbit has never been to Boston, to him it is the end of the world, tucked up in under Maine. People living that far north are as fantastic to him as Eskimos.’
There is more to the dialogue than that but it exhibits Updike’s keen ear for ordinary talk. I could have had the same conversation as that (although Boston is not fantastic to me in the same way).
Arriving in Florida, without his wife, who is really not following him, he is alone, with his failing heart and his dimming dreams, the heavy bear that goes with him, dragging him down, down. Rabbit at Rest. Brilliant, one of the best novels of the late 20th century along with Roth’s American Pastoral.
Not having Updike’s decade by decade commentary of the Rabbit series feels like the same galactic void from his sentence: “The stark plummy stars press down and the depth of the galactic void for an instant makes you feel suspended upside down.” My world is upside down without him.
“We are each of us like our little blue planet, hung in black space, upheld by nothing but our mutual reassurances, our loving ties.” –