Rabbit at Rest.
John Updike. Knopf.
544 pages. $21.95. As befitting his nickname of "Rabbit," Harry Angstrom has been running most of his existence, in pursuit of dreams and women -- often the same? -- and at the same time away from life's responsibilities and love. His three-decade-old marriage to Janice, "the mutt," as he has always called her, has survived mutual infidelities and the multitude of changes that each partner undergoes from wedding day. Still, he thinks, "Young people give off this heat; they're still at the heart of the world's business, making babies. Old couples like him and Janice give off the sour smell of dead flower stalks, rotting in the vase."
When he and Janice decide on semi-retirement in their 50s, comfortable from ownership of a Toyota dealership in Brewer, Pa., they live six months a year on the southwest coast of Florida. Rabbit, now 55 and badly out of shape, can play golf every day and Janice can continue her obsession with tennis. They are among the many "snowbirds" from the North who have set up a new life in an entirely faceless condo ("Valhalla Village") in an overdeveloped state that is rapidly losing its soul. Route 41, near his new home in Deleon, Fla., has a particularly distinctive character: "Among the repeating franchises selling gasoline and groceries and liquor and drugs all mixed together in that peculiar lawless way they have down here, low pale buildings cater especially to illness and age. Arthritic Rehabilitation Center. Nursefinder, Inc. Chiropractix. Cardiac Rehabilitation Center." It's a great place for youthful living before you die.
Depressed and estranged, fearful of death and feeling rootless as ever -- this is Angstrom as we find him in "Rabbit at Rest," the fourth and final volume in the Rabbit novels written by John Updike. Though it is at times annoyingly flawed, "Rabbit at Rest" is a worthy conclusion to Mr. Updike's 30-year chronicle of the life of Rabbit Angstrom. Richly written and full of Mr. Updike's usual sharp observations, it is finally almost heartbreakingly sad. Rabbit has never seemed more fragile, yet so distant from all that might heal him.
For readers of John Updike's first Rabbit book, "Rabbit, Run," it ,, is no surprise. That extraordinary novel, published in 1960 when Mr. Updike was but 26, memorably captured a former high school basketball star from a small Pennsylvania town who could never shake an all-encompassing alienation. Although quite bright, he could never make a decisive move out of a stifling small-town atmosphere or a joyless, too-early marriage. His only response was visceral: to run. At the end of "Rabbit, Run," it all comes down on Rabbit: "He doesn't know, what to do, where to go, what will happen, the thought that he doesn't know seems to make him infinitely small and impossible to capture."
In two later books, "Rabbit Redux" (1971) and "Rabbit Is Rich" (1981), we follow Rabbit through a predictably difficult middle age. By taking over her father's Toyota dealership, Rabbit and Janice have moved from a hand-to-mouth existence to a comfortable life, yet spiritually they are as bankrupt as ever. The infidelities and betrayals continue, as does the accompanying accumulation of resentments. Janice, though never as smart as Rabbit, is shrewder and becomes more assertive and less dependent on him (chillingly so). Their son, Nelson, is wounded by this tumultuous family life and grows up nervous and bitter.
For better or worse, Rabbit Angstrom has always followed his heart. Now, in "Rabbit at Rest," it is giving out. He has a heart attack on the beach in Florida, and the attending cardiologist tells Janice, "It's tired and stiff and full of crud." He is talking in physiological terms, but certainly Rabbit's heart has
greater aches than those caused by a lousy diet and 40 extra pounds. The distance in his marriage will never close; Nelson, who has taken over the day-to-day running of the dealership, grows more and more hostile to his father; Rabbit's restlessness never goes away. As always, he dreams of running, but to where?
Rabbit survives his brush with death but remains haunted by it. Meanwhile, the reason for Nelson's increasingly bizarre behavior becomes obvious: He is addicted to cocaine. He agrees to undergo treatment, but not before bringing the dealership close to financial ruin.
Janice becomes a real estate saleswoman in Brewer. Active and determined, she struggles to accept what her husband has become: a former star athlete now a brooding, perpetually alienated heart patient who continues to exercise infrequently and load up on junk and fatty foods. Perhaps she even joins him in his death wish.
When Rabbit, after 30 years of self-destructiveness, finally commits the act for which Janice cannot forgive him, Rabbit runs again -- back to their condo in Florida, which seems more empty than ever. And it is there, alone as he was destined to be, that Rabbit's struggle with life draws to a close.
With "Rabbit at Rest," Mr. Updike has pulled off th near-impossible: make compelling, even fascinating, reading of the sorrows and disappointments of a troubled man -- in four books, no less. "Rabbit, Run" was a magical book, but "Rabbit at Rest" fully realizes the possibilities of the first, and expands nTC gloriously on them. After 1,500 pages, we still feel for Rabbit Angstrom. We anguish at his sorrows, mourn his incapability to extricate himself from his pain.
I wish only that Mr. Updike had not chosen such an obvious, movie-of-the-week denouement; using a basketball court as the setting was a hackneyed idea not worthy of his talent. Likewise, his constant use of real-life events as backdrop -- the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Hurricane Hugo -- is disappointing. With such a rich imagination, why draw so much from a stack of last year's newspapers?
The English author V. S. Pritchett once wrote of "Rabbit Is Rich": "We realise that the women, even when they are victims, are stronger than Rabbit is, for a reason he somehow stumbles on. Men are solitaries and egotists; foolish or not, they see themselves as born to be alone." True enough, but through every stumble of Rabbit Angstrom's solitary journey, our hearts and minds were with him. Had he but known.
Mr. Warren is book editor of The Sun.