Out of what many American literature enthusiasts call the Big Four (Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike), it is Updike who is the most underrated, as well as the most likable. Granted he has his flaws: few writers as gifted has him have resorted to formula more, and ever since Couples got him on the cover of Time, he has more than often resorted to a D.H Laurence-styled sex scene, which a previous generation found licentiously liberating, but I find unreadable. But unlike Bellow, Roth and Mailer, he almost always has a genuine affinity for the women his protagonists sleep with. Another thing that separates him from the aforementioned three is that Updike understands that his protagonists have real human flaws, a literary trait that the other men have failed to grasp after dozens of books and thousands of pages. Even in race, Updike stands tall, as his progressive moderation has a basic decency and common sense that towers over the Bellow and Mailer’s diametrically opposite reactionary politics.
Oh yeah, there’s one more thing, he’s one of the greatest stylists in the history of the English language. America’s preeminent Nabokovophile, Updike has crafted his own Antierra out of the American suburb. Like many great writers, his body of work is inconsistent: the aforementioned Couples is cheap Penthouse porn, Month of Sundays tries to fuse Hawthorne’s Black Veil with the sexual revolution of the 70s and ends up grasping neither, while Brazil, Memories of the Ford Administration, and Villages (his worst and most recent novel) find him repeating himself. But his best books could take up a small library. 1964’s The Centaur turned the story of a father and a son caught up in a rainstorm into a Greek epic. Roger’s Version and In the Beauty of the Lilies effortlessly fused religion, pop culture, and the sexual perversity that men can sometimes stoop to. The collection of his early stories, published in late 2003, is excessive, but the best stories show a master at the form of short fiction.
But the books that Updike will be remembered for, and rightly so, will be the one’s in his rabbit series, a four book tale detailing the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Through four novels, Angstrom moves from being a basketball player, to a single dad, to a wealthy owner of a car dealership. And throughout that transition, Angstrom remains a brutally misogynist, anti-social, ugly American bastard. He is also wildly successful in almost everything he does, no matter how hard he tries to do otherwise. In each book, Updike captures a certain American feeling in Rabbit’s ambling and bumbling ascension: Angstrom’s blood boiling misanthropy symbolized the darker aesthetics of the Baby Boom era in 1960’s Rabbit Run; 1969’s Rabbit Redux saw a slice of the racial and sexual schizophrenia of the 60s; and 1979’s Rabbit is Rich showed a generation coming to terms with age and money. Rabbit at Rest, the book in which Angstrom’s luck begins to go sour, is his masterpiece, a Greek tragedy articulated through the downfall of a flawed nuclear family. To the extent that he is successful in doing so makes it his best novel and one of the very best American novels ever written.
The first part of the book finds Rabbit genuflecting on his “wild, American luck”. Too old to sleep around, or, let me rephrase that, too old to be good looking enough for women to give him some, Rabbit wonders around from wife to friends to old mistresses. His car dealerships, save his son’s, are wildly successful. He has a a loving family and a son with a wife and grandkids. Yet, he is miserable. Almost brutal towards his wife, he throws a temper tantrum when he finds out that Janice is basically running his businesses. He meanders in his son’s dealership and family and even cusses out his grandkids. I repeat his grandkids. In what basically is an American Eden, he walks out, complaining that the clouds are too big, the light is too bright, and the wings are too heavy.
Ah, but pretty soon darker clouds begin to form in the horizon of our misanthropic hero’s seemingly endless summer. Rabbit discovers that his son’s dealership is losing money hand over fist, and macho pontification and belittlement, the father’s raison d’etre, ensues. But shortly afterwards, he finds out the real reason why the dealership is losing money: Nelson’s a crackhead. Nelson, the child Angstrom abandoned in the first book and the sweet curious boy and teenager in the second and third has become a sobbing, hypersensitive, drug-addicted bastard, so consumed with his own pain and self-pity that he doesn’t mind beating up his wife to numb it.
Nelson’s base head pathos comes to fruition when Pru calls both Rabbit and Janice to pick his son up after a domestic violence incident. The conflict spurs Nelson to go in to rehab, Pru to come in closer contact with the family, and Rabbit to lose that majestic luck that came so easy to him for 56 years. Suddenly everything that Rabbit touches doesn’t turn to gold. More than that, it’s destroyed. His friends, long men of leisure and sexual play, start to die off and realize how bloody fucking miserable their lives were. Janice, the character that Updike is the most sympathetic to, develops her own life to the point that Rabbit seems like an antiquated albatross. And Rabbit brutally undercuts his son and the Son, in response, whines like a child, symbolizing two dysfunctional schools of male thought that have been pervasive through the 20th and 21st century.
But his slow, gradual slide becomes a quick and steep one when Rabbit decides to sleep with Pru. When found out, Janice moves away, Nelson’s heartbroken when Pru tells her, and even his grandkids(I repeat, his grandkids) come to the realization that everyone who has came in contact with Rabbit Angstrom has found out, that he’s a fucking bum. And this, contrary to the his conservative fans’ assertions, is the theme of the Rabbit books; not “the plight of the suburban male” but the portrait of a man who has everything and blows it, not because he’s “oppressed” but because he’s a couple of humanity genes short. The final part of the book finds Rabbit doing what he did in the beginning of the book and what he did at the beginning of his first book: Running. He goes from place to place, hotel to hotel and, in the ultimate T.S Eliot ” in my end is my beginning” moment, from basketball court to court, having a heart attack while shooting hoops with black street toughs, leading to the final, climatic scenes with his family.
Along the way there are the usual delightful literary accoutrements from Updike. Once again I have to refer to his prose, as even his worst books have a quality burnished by his style. Like Nabokov, Updike has a lovely ear for surfeit detail, but in his own way, clear with a language invested in the American idiom. In that lyrical sense, Rabbit, with his compositely flawed sense of manhood and his good natured demagoguery is a Hemingway hero in a time where Hemingway heroes are obsolete to the point of being dangerous. (Side note: I like Hemingway, I just know his flaws) Rabbit’s misogyny, which critics have harped on, is a tricky issue. There are books to hang him on in that department, (Witches of Eastwick), but this isn’t one of them, and Updike has sided with his better angels on that subject the overwhelming majority of the time. And one shouldn’t pin Updike, a poor kid from a Pennsylvania sticks who ended up being the most cosmopolitan American literary critic since William Dean Howells, translating Borges and backing writers as diverse as Alice Munro to Gayl Jones, to Rabbit, an all American schmuck who curses out women like a gangster rapper.
In June of this year, Updike will release Terrorist, his 22nd novel about a disillusioned 18-year-old boy who discovers radical Islam. It will be by far the most radical and the most controversial book Updike has ever written, but the subject, the tangled web woven from, to quote Greil Marcus, “that old, weird, America”, is his bread and butter. His last novel might have flopped, but I’m betting he still has a grand slam in him. But even if he doesn’t; Updike has done more than enough. His best work, and there’s a lot of it, has given him an indelible place in our American letters. He is one of our literary masters and Rabbit at Rest is where he is at the peak of his powers.