I read John Updike’s Rabbit series when I was 22, living with nuns in the North Bronx. Perhaps needless to say, I had a lot of free time after around 8:30 every night, and I tore through all the novels I didn’t have time to read in undergrad. Of course, what I read still had to be literature, for the same reason where I worked had to be the South Bronx. My life simply had to be soul-achingly important, and what could be more important than inner city work and the world’s great books? Anything would be better than the middle-class, anti-intellectual muck I had left. Or so I thought. And then I read Rabbit.
“Rabbit” Harry Angstrom is the main character of four novels and a novella, each title alliterative, each of them set at the turn of a decade, and each of them reflecting the zeitgeist of its era: the 1960 Rabbit, Run features a newly married twentysomething, uncomfortable with his society’s strict sexual codes and unsure how to handle the end of youth’s omnipotence; the 1971, ’81, and ’90 novels follow Rabbit through, respectively, wife-swapping, money, and then death. A postscript novella, “Rabbit Remembered,”set in 1999, follows Rabbit’s family, where he lingers, as all departed do, around the old haunts, both gone and not. I’m sure, had Updike lived a few more years, 2010 would have had at least a Rabbit short story, though I’m hard-pressed for another R-word: maybe “Rabbit for Real.”
Everyone loved Rabbit. Rabbit, Run set Updike as his generation’s writer-to-beat, and it firmly established his rivalry with Philip Roth in dealing with the same recurrent theme: How does a relatively selfish, very much alive and extremely horny man deal with the strains of family and religion?
Updike won a National Book Award for the latter two Rabbit novels, in addition to countless other literary awards for other work, and the Rabbit quartet (published as Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels in 1995) earned a New York Times accolade as one of the five best novels written between 1975 and 2000. He was amazingly prolific, well regarded for his criticism, poetry, stories, reviews and essays, not to mention the novels he kept writing until he died. His many friends said Updike was a kind man, and his reviews tried hard to find the good in younger writers’ work.
A distinctly American writer
Like Roth, Updike was obsessed by religion (though Updike actually believed in God), and, also like Roth, Updike was much-bandied for a Nobel Prize, which some claim he never earned only because of the committee’s growing anti-Americanism.
And make no mistake: Updike was a distinctly American writer, in the same way that Rabbit was a distinctly American creation. People loved (and secretly hated) Rabbit for the same reasons they love and hate America: they were attracted by the jock’s swagger, the yearning to do good without giving up fun, the disarming charm of those unimpressed by brains. Yet in Rabbit we also saw all that’s wrong with us: the impulse that leads to weight and ruined marriage, the selfishness that makes life empty, the pathetic sense that there might be something more without any vocabulary for what that might be.
We read all of this through the words of a man quite different from Rabbit, though just as American. Updike’s main character was capable of both carelessness and deep compassion, thoughtlessness and profound theology. He was, in other words, a typical American WASP from a small town, middle class, and not particularly special in any way. And yet he was. Updike showed how this life mattered, and mattered profoundly. And it didn’t matter the same way most stories about the American middle class have mattered: Updike’s novels didn’t follow the typical trope, which is, more or less, that the middle class will destroy your soul.
It’s still what a lot of Americans — and many more non-Americans — say about the very large space between our country’s projects and mansions. There might, they grant, be something beautiful and important about being poor in America, and there’s certainly aesthetic possibility among the rich, but those folks on Main Street are a bunch of soul-deadened hacks. It’s certainly what I thought, growing up a military kid in America’s many and undifferentiated suburbs, and it’s what I expected when I started reading Rabbit, Run. But Updike tells a different story. Rabbit’s certainly no saint, and his life would probably be better if he were less materialistic, a little more reflective, maybe a bit more careful. Yet there’s still a haunting beauty there, for this is a life like any other, at times arbitrary and cruel and at times the unmistakable image of God.
Updike showed us there’s beauty and God in everything, even WASPs, and his characters come to the same epiphany. As Rabbit’s family gathers for the holidays in “Rabbit Remembered,” Rabbit’s at-times-estranged son speaks of his father as a kind-of saint, always striving for good even if he could rarely pull it off. I remember, reading Rabbit at Rest on a bus in the winter, literally touching the page because I was so moved by one of Updike’s sentences. I looked out the window, at the banal buildings of the Bronx, and realized that a man like Updike wasn’t creating beauty; he was just showing us what was already there, all around, striving, like Rabbit, to be free.